The Troubling Plagiarism of Father Thomas Rosica

Sometimes the most disturbing question is not why, by how?

Father Thomas Rosica has built a reputation for himself as an amazing communicator for the Catholic Church in Canada.

The CEO of Salt + Light Media, a Toronto-based Catholic media organization, a regular guest columnist in many of the nation’s major newspapers and a former president of St. Michael’s College, Rosica has been heralded as one of the best and most important English-language communicators the church has.

In 2015, a profile on Rosica in The Globe and Mail newspaper identified him as the “Go-to communicator” for the Pope’s Cuba and U.S. tour and that he “has quietly emerged as one of the Vatican’s most effective communications gurus.”

However, that career is likely coming to something of an inglorious end.

On February 8, 2019 Rosica gave a lecture at Cambridge University that was published on YouTube. A week later, on February 15, reporters noticed that much of the speech was plagiarized from various other authors.

But as bad as one heavily-plagiarized speech would have been, the story was about to get much worse for Rosica.

As others began to dig through his work, they found more and more instances of plagiarism involving everything from newspaper articles, blog posts and more. The story also began to get picked up by secular media, which took a special interest in the columns that Rosica had written for them.

This led to The Globe and Mail issuing corrections on three columns Rosica had written for them and to widespread mainstream media coverage about the unfolding story.

This, in turn, shined attention on his academic positions and other accolades. The Jesuits of Canada were prepared to give him the Magis Award in April but have since withdrawn that honor. Likewise, Rosica was on the board of multiple universities, including St. Michael’s College, but has since resigned all of those positions.

As for Rosica himself, he apologized for the plagiarism, saying in an interview with the National Post, “What I’ve done is wrong, and I am sorry about that. I don’t know how else to say it.” However, in the same article, he also attempted to minimize the plagiarism saying that, “I realize I relied too much on compiled notes,” and the he, “will be very vigilant in the future.”

He also put some of the blame on interns and material prepared by his staff.

However, those excuses began to fall apart as more and more plagiarism was uncovered, some going back to 1991, 28 years ago.

In the end, there doesn’t appear to be much that he wrote that wasn’t plagiarized in some way. It seems that plagiarism was (and may still be) very central to his writing process.

Still, as the story winds to a close, it appears that Rosica’s career as a communicator is, most likely, over. However, two very important questions remain: Why did Rosica plagiarize so heavily and why was it just detected now?

A 30-Year Mystery

The peculiarity of Rosica’s plagiarism is that none of it is well-hidden at all. He routinely plagiarized lengthy passages from other, well-known Catholic authors and well-recognized secular sources and he did it in very public places including columns in major newspapers.

Matthew Schmitz, the senior editor of First Things, was so gobsmacked by the plagiarism he saw in Rosica’s work for the publication that he took to Twitter so say that he couldn’t recall a more extreme case.

It’s also worth noting that Rosica is not universally beloved by Catholics. He holds several positions, including on LGBT issues and abortion, that many in the faith are opposed to. In fact, the scandal was initially uncovered by an opponent to Rosica’s views.

All of this begs a difficult question: How did Rosica last so long? Did no one notice the plagiarism? Did some see it and not think it was a big deal? Did someone see it and doubt their findings? Was there an attempt to keep this a secret?

While Rosica wouldn’t be the first plagiarist to have built a long career out of other people’s words, plagiarism is typically a crime with a limited lifespan.

For example, Cristiane Serruya may have plagiarized over 30 books, but she did so in a relatively short six year window. Furthermore, her plagiarism was much more difficult to detect, involving shorter passages, and far less public works, namely books that were for sale rather than posting it on the open internet.

Likewise, Jonah Lehrer may have build an impressive journalism resume, but his rocket ride to stardom was only about five years long and his plagiarism was much more subtle than Rosica’s.

How was Rosica only caught now? He plagiarized extremely flagrantly and extremely regularly for nearly three decades. In an era of plagiarism detection software and search engines, this seems improbable.

The easy answer is to say, “Obviously, no one checked.” Even a cursory check would have found at least some of the plagiarism.

But this also means that no one recognized the words, despite them often coming from adjacent authors. If they did, they either assumed they were remembering wrong or that it wasn’t a big deal.

The fact that plagiarism so flagrant, so easy to spot and so open went on for as long as it did is both mind boggling and troublesome.

That, in turn, is what I find most disturbing about this story. Not the plagiarism itself, but the fact that there wasn’t even a cursory glance at his work for nearly three decades.

It opens the door to questions about how many other plagiarists like Rosica are out there and when/if are they going to get caught? After all, if Rosica can make this kind of plagiarism work for nearly 30 years, what’s stopping anyone else?

The answer is nothing. Nothing other than luck and, perhaps, being in a position of trust. That may be the scariest part of all.

Bottom Line

There are two elements of good news in this story. The first is that Rosica was eventually caught. It may have taken far longer than it should have, but it did happen.

The second is that Rosica may have been helped by his age. His academic work was in the 90s, before plagiarism detection software was widely available (Turnitin launched in 2000) and, by the time the tools and technology were available to check on his work, he was already in a position of trust.

In short, he likely wasn’t scrutinized because of his stature even though he only got to that level because no one could check his work for plagiarism as he was coming up.

That may put a limit on the number of similar plagiarists that are out there but it still makes this case deeply troubling.

To that end, it may shed new light on just how plagiarists like Rosica are able to get away with it for so long. That, in turn, may help us prevent it in the future.

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