June 10, 2013

Pope Girl Update

The “Pope girl” incident at Carnegie Mellon University reached something of a conclusion today, as indecent exposure misdemeanor charges were dropped against Katherine B. O’Connor, 19, and Robb Godshaw, 22. (See my post, “Letter to the Editor about Pope Girl.”) The two CMU students agreed to accept a penalty of completing 80 hours of community service. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported the story here, but a more insightful story was posted by public radio station WESA-FM on its Web site.

Pope Girl (composite)
Ms. O’Connor in Pope Girl attire
(composite photo)
WESA noted that the Anti-Gravity Downhill Derby, the CMU event that included Ms. O’Connor and Mr. Godshaw in various states of undress, has, for the past three years—as long as the event has been held, apparently—involved art students in various states of nudity. Moreover, according to WESA, “O’Connor’s performance was approved by her advisor prior to the parade.”

As I noted in my earlier post, Ms. O’Connor and Mr. Godshaw only got into trouble because the Roman Catholic Bishop of Pittsburgh, David Zubik, learned about the nude costuming in the CMU event and complained about it. According to the Post-Gazette story about Zubik’s complaint, the bishop was only concerned about Ms. O’Connor, whose costume, the bishop said, was “offensive to me and the church that I represent.”

Essentially, Bishop Zubik bullied the CMU administration into bringing criminal charges against two student not really because of their nudity, but because one of them offended a prince of the Roman Catholic Church, an institution that apparently carries a lot of clout in Pittsburgh.

I have no idea what Mr. Godshaw was trying to say with his performance, but Ms. O’Connor was calling attention to the appalling prevalence of child rape by Roman Catholic clergy, something that Pope Benedict XVI was less that diligent in rooting out. Bishop Zubik, in true Roman Catholic fashion, holds his church in higher regard than Jesus, the Bible, or ordinary human beings. Surely the rape of a few hundred (or a few thousand) children is nothing compared to a 19-year-old girl’s suggesting that the Pope, the Vicar of Christ, is anything less than a perfect steward of Christ’s church.

I’m not sure that Katherine O’Connor’s costume was brilliant, but, as a piece of political theater, it clearly succeeded. She is certainly the heroine of this story. Bishop Zubik, on the other hand, is, as I said, a bully, and someone who completely misunderstands (or has disdain for) the First Amendment. He is the prime villain of this sordid tale. And CMU president Jared Cohon is a pathetic coward who allowed himself to be bullied by the Catholic bishop and was willing to throw two of his own students under the bus to avoid taking a stand in favor of free speech.

Update, 6/11/2013: The Post-Gazette story referred to above has been updated and expanded, making it rather more helpful than was the original version.


  1. Hi Lionel,

    My comment about this all along has been that the only people who really have grounds for a sincere and anguished protest over this incident are the girl's parents, who are paying over $62,000 a year, tuition+board, for this fascinating "educational experience" in the area of Fine Arts. (Or perhaps she's funding it all by way of private student loans, to graduate in four years with $250,000 in debt and a not-very-marketable set of skills . . . .)


    I thought it would have been wiser for Bishop Zubik to remain silent on the matter. But I would tend to agree with him that had "Pope Girl" paraded in similar, um, attire as "Imam Girl," to direct concern to the status of women in Muslim countries, the "kids will be kids" response and compelling defense of artistic freedom might have taken a more complicated direction.

    Bruce Robison

  2. Perhaps reaction would have been different had a student’s demonstration been seen as anti-Islamic. That might or might not be justified, depending on what aspect of Islam it addressed. Some, of course, would object to it as an attack on a minority, but Islam—certainly as it is practiced in some parts of the world—surely exhibits aspects to which a Westerner might have serious misgivings. Then, there is the Danish cartoon incident to consider. (I doubt the students feared mortal danger from Catholic hooligans.)

    The Post-Gazette story contains this: “The Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the Catholic diocese, said Monday that Bishop Zubik’s concern had been the ‘lack of respect for the religious beliefs of others.’” Ms. O’Conner’s target was not the religious beliefs of anyone. It was aimed at behavior that has frankly been appalling. Of course, if Bishop Zubik sincerely believes that priests have a right to molest children, then I suppose his beliefs were under attack. Even in that circumstance, the First Amendment does not require “respect.”

    Like the legendary emperor, it is Bishop Zubik, not Ms. O’Connor who is, metaphorically, wearing no clothes.

  3. "Ms. O’Conner’s target was not the religious beliefs of anyone."

    So you say. But her mode of expression, though pleasing to the male gaze, doesn't actually decipher into an unambiguous assertion.

    The bishop apparently took it as a simple expression of contempt for his faith. If he misunderstood the import, I'm not sure that was entirely his fault. Perhaps a bishop shouldn't object to expressions of contempt. These things come with the territory.

    "Bishop Zubik, in true Roman Catholic fashion, holds his church in higher regard than Jesus, the Bible, or ordinary human beings." So do these, I guess.

    1. Rick, I will grant that the significance of the costume was not immediately apparent. On the other hand, I often fail to see what artists are getting at. The irony is that the Pope Girl outfit would have had little impact were it not for Bishop Zubik. He also inspired conversation about free speech and academic freedom.

  4. The Bishop's reaction exhibits an all too frequent attitude expressed by Roman Catholic leadership, namely that they are above criticism and any negative display toward them is religious persecution. What is even more disturbing is their apparent complete lack of self-awareness. They fail to realize that they are a privileged, wealthy, and powerful group around the entire world. They are the establishment and they most assuredly are not a poor, persecuted minority. The Roman Catholic bishops have no problem with inserting themselves direclty into the lives of normal Americans. They actively try to take away our rights and block legislation passed by our elected representatives. They believe they can tell us when and if to become parents, block our insurance companies from paying for bith control, tell us who we can and can't marry. Then if we complain we are "persecuting" them and we are religious bigots. I hope and pray our institutions of higher learning will start to stand up to the bully on the beach and respectively say "mind your own business".

    Bob Button

  5. The Post-Gazette editorialized June 14 that the 80 hours of community service required of the two CMU students represents a “wise compromise.” I don’t find this “compromise” at all fair. In fact, the students are not being punished for their nudity but for Ms. O’Connor’s having offending Bishop Zubik.

  6. Though a bit off topic, I must respond to Mr. Robison's assertion that "Pope Girl" will squirt out the other end of college with "...a not-very-marketable set of skills." Ah, silly silly people who just do not "get" the value of an arts education. A 1985 graduate of the C-MU Drama Dept, I am making a fantastic living in film and TV using my "art school" education. I have worked straight through the current recession, which apparently, many people with "real" educations have not been able to do. Of course, Mr. Robison really just wanted to editorialize, but he would do well to shy away from the silly conventional wisdom rhetoric about an art school education, unless looking foolish is his desire.


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