When the Ghostwriter is a Plagiarist

Why trust but verify is important...

In February 2019, we covered the story of Father Thomas Rosica, a high-profile Catholic Priest that, at the time, was widely regarded as one of the best communicators in the Catholic Church. He was the CEO of Salt + Light Media, a Canadian Catholic media organization, he was on the board of multiple universities and he was a regular guest columnist in newspapers all over the world.

However, all of that came to an abrupt halt when Rosica gave a lecture at Cambridge University that reporters quickly realized was plagiarized from various authors. That led to an investigation in his previous work, which quickly found that Rosica had a long history of plagiarism.

Newspapers published corrections on his columns, he resigned all of his university positions, he resigned his post at Salt+ Light Media and he generally fell out of favor with the Church. When the dust settled, investigators had found widespread plagiarism in his work, some of it dating back nearly 30 years.

As bad as it was, the story seemed to be over. Though it’s unlikely every shred of plagiarism Rosica had committed was uncovered, more than enough had been to establish a pattern. Likewise, though Rosica remains a figure in the Church, his prominence and reach had been all-but destroyed.

However, a new book has added a new layer to Rosica’s story. Disguised Academic Plagiarism, written by Michael V. Dougherty, takes a closer look at Rosica’s plagiarisms and finds a new wrinkle: Rosica also plagiarized when he was ghostwriting for a prominent Cardinal.

While this isn’t a new plagiarism in terms of Rosica’s timeline, it does add an interesting new layer to Rosica’s history and to the concept of ghostwriting broadly.

Having a Plagiarist for a Ghostwriters

Cardinal Marc Oullet
Giansa25 / CC BY-SA

According to an article in the National Post, between 2006 and 2007, Rosica wrote a series of pieces for Cardinal Marc Ouellet. Those pieces included a talk that Ouellet gave in Windsor, Ontario, which was later published in a Catholic journal.

However, according to Dougherty, who is a professor of philosophy at Ohio Dominican University, at least one-third of that talk was not original. Another involves a 2008 keynote Ouellet gave to a convention in Toronto and a third example involves a homily that Ouellet gave at a mass that same year.

Rosica initially denied ghostwriting but admitted to having written various items for him. He said, “I prepared the three texts for the Cardinal back in 2006-2007. The texts were not properly cited for their sources. The Cardinal is not responsible for my errors in proper citation of sources in the original drafts of the text I prepared. They are my errors.”

Initially, it was unclear if Rosica was Ouellet’s ghostwriter. However, Dougherty was able to spot passages used by Ouellet that were later used by Rosica, often without attribution. According to Dougherty, this means that there either were two serial plagiarists in the Catholic Church with similar styles (that occasionally plagiarized each other) or that Rosica was the ghostwriter.

With Rosica’s admission to having penned the pieces, this becomes just another chapter in Rosica’s story. That said, it highlights a very serious danger about ghostwriting: Your ghostwriter could turn out to be a plagiarist.

When Ghostwriters Plagiarize

Ghostwriting is a complicated and nuanced subject. Though it is often considered plagiarism, in many situations, it is an accepted practice. In general, when there is no audience expectation of complete originality, ghostwriting is acceptable.

There is little expectation that a celebrity wrote their autobiography, a politician wrote their speech, the CEO wrote their own corporate memo and so forth. In those situations, as well as others, ghostwriting is not viewed as a form of plagiarism.

That said, ghostwriting can still go very, very wrong. For example, B. Simone learned this recently when it was discovered her new book had plagiarized quizzes and lists. Though she wrote the text of the book herself, the quizzes, graphics and lists were from the design firm that was hired to finish the work.

Though this is a common practice in the publishing industry, the plagiarized work of her designers landed her in hot water and forced her to take responsibility as CEO of her brand.

In a very different story, novelist Cristiane Serruya attempted to blame widespread plagiarism found in her work on her ghostwriter. However, that actually made her situation worse as ghostwriting is not an accepted practice in the romance novel field and merely made it a different kind of plagiarism. Still, if she is telling the truth, it’s another example of a ghostwriter landing their employer in trouble.

The problem is this: Even if ghostwriting is acceptable, the person whose name is on the work is still ultimately responsible for it. They are the ones that will benefit from it, they are the ones that are presenting the work to the world and they are the ones connected with it.

Ouellet’s case is somewhat unique in that Rosica was widely-assumed to be a ghostwriter for him (the two were close for some time beforehand), and his history of plagiarism was already known. However, imagine for a moment if this story had unfolded in reverse.

What if, instead of learning about Rosica’s history of plagiarism through one of his speeches, it was one of Ouellet’s that tripped the plagiarism alarms? It is amazing Rosica went as long as he did without being discovered, but every article and every speech was a chance so this is entirely possible.

Would Ouellet simply state that Rosica wrote the text for him? Would Rosica have confessed to the plagiarism? Would Ouellet take responsibility for the plagiarism? One thing that is certain is that Ouellet would have been the center of the conversation and initial headlines would have read “Ouellet plagiarizes speech”.

Ouellet dodged a bullet. Since this came out well after Rosica’s history became known, he’s been spared any real damage from it. However, it’s easy to imagine a way that he could have been directly in the line of fire.

Bottom Line

In the end, this is just a footnote in Rosica’s story. With his pattern of plagiarism and his reputation for being a fantastic communicator in the church, it’s only logical that he helped write or even ghostwrote pieces for others.

However, in doing so he risked bringing them down either with him or instead of him. When you ghostwrite for someone else, their reputation is in your hands. Any ethical misstep, including plagiarism, hits them hardest.

If you’re someone hiring a ghostwriter, this is a strong reminder to always check their work. The adage of “trust but verify” holds true here. No matter how much you trust your ghostwriter, no matter how great their reputation, anyone can make a mistake.

After all, ghostwriters are human, they make mistakes and they have ethical failings. The only difference is that they don’t suffer the direst consequences for those failings. If you’re hiring one, take the time to check behind them, it may just save your reputation.

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