MANCHESTER, N.H. (ChurchMilitant.com) - Emails reveal a New Hampshire priest and local media colluded to wage a public media campaign against a traditional Catholic community, possibly violating ethical norms in the process. There is evidence that collusion may continue, this time against Church Militant.
Emails obtained by Church Militant show Fr. Georges de Laire, vicar for canonical affairs, passed along information about the St. Benedict Center (SBC) — a Catholic community that houses the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, with whom de Laire has been embroiled in a canonical battle — to local freelance writer Damien Fisher. Fisher then used that information to portray the SBC in a bad light.
De Laire imposed sanctions on the SBC in January 2019, severely restricting its ministry. The canonical case revolves around the SBC's interpretation of the Catholic dogma Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus ("No salvation outside the Church").
The case was highlighted in a 2019 article published by Church Militant titled "NH Vicar Changes Dogma Into Heresy," which later became the subject of a defamation lawsuit filed by de Laire against Church Militant.
De Laire accused Church Militant, among other things, of mischaracterizing his criticism of the SBC as an "attack."
His emails with Fisher, however, indicate de Laire had an ax to grind against the SBC and in fact used media to go after the group, going far beyond his office as vicar for canonical affairs to serve as a source for Fisher, passing along damaging information — a fact both men tried to keep secret.
Others have accused de Laire of orchestrating a media assault against the SBC.
"[T]he diocese's controversial canonist, the Rev. Georges de Laire, has repeatedly castigated the Slaves in the pages of the New Hampshire Union Leader," wrote C.J. Doyle, head of the Massachusetts Catholic Action League, who also serves as communications director for the Friends of the SBC.
Doyle blasts the "deliberate campaign of demonization in the secular media apparently originating with and apparently orchestrated by Georges de Laire."
"Georges de Laire's ally in this campaign to discredit the Slaves has been Union Leader stringer Damien Fisher," Doyle notes, "who has produced eight tendentiously hostile stories on the Slaves since 2019."
According to Br. Andre Marie Villarubia, head of the SBC, de Laire did not respond to a set of questions submitted to him concerning their canonical case, instead going to media and offering public comments.
"Why would Father de Laire not simply answer my questions as he agreed to do and thus patiently continue the dialogue we agreed on," Br. Andre Marie asked in a Feb. 4, 2021 post, "rather than appeal to the court of public opinion by utilizing the services of a biased journalist?"
Father de Laire may have passed on confidential canonical matters to Fisher for no legitimate reason, in violation of canon law.
An April 24, 2019 email involves a discussion of Br. Andre Marie Villarubia, head of the SBC, and his private attempts at seeking ordination to the priesthood, the clergy from whom he sought help and the circumstances surrounding his decision not to pursue ordination.
The discussion appears entirely gratuitous, offered by de Laire without justification.
De Laire tips his hand in the next paragraph when he requests anonymity: "It goes without saying that it is important to protect the nature of your sources for this information (esp. the documents)."
"Absolutely," Fisher responds. "Thank you."
It is unclear which documents de Laire passed on to Fisher and whether they involved canonical matters regarding Br. Andre Marie's attempts at ordination.
Canon 471 of the Catholic Code of Canon Law governs the duties of those who hold curial office, including that of vicar for canonical affairs, and requires that he "observe secrecy within the limits and according to the manner determined by law or by the bishop."
Canon 486 governs the protection of curial documents, and states that they "must be kept with the greatest of care," going on to note that such documents should "be properly filed and carefully kept under lock and key."
In other words, the Church imposes strict secrecy on canonical matters. Any cleric passing along confidential curial documents to media, especially with no legitimate reason, would be abusing his office.
Fisher, who writes for various New Hampshire news outlets, himself may have violated journalistic norms by failing to publicly disclose his relationship with de Laire, a frequent subject of his reporting.
The NH Center for Public Interest Journalism explains in its conflicts of interest policy that any journalist writing on a particular subject must disclose his relationship with that subject. While Fisher has frequently reported favorably on de Laire, he has never disclosed their personal relationship.
"Any reporter who enjoys a secret, backdoor relationship with a source, and then twists a story to help his source, is a rogue reporter who has lost all credibility and should be exposed for the hack that he is," said Church Militant CEO Michael Voris, who has worked in professional media for nearly 40 years, winning four Emmies and multiple AP awards for his broadcast journalism.
"Damien Fisher, it would seem, is not an investigative reporter who performs original research," said Doyle in comments to Church Militant. "It is obvious that he has a single source for his stories, for which he engages in special pleading."
"The creation, content and timing of his stories is, apparently, determined by his source," he continued. "Each story initiative by the source becomes an opportunity to regurgitate past calumnies against the SBC and its leader."
Fisher and de Laire's communications include mocking Voris. In a Feb. 26, 2019 exchange, Fisher writes, "Michael Voris is a human toothache."
De Laire responds, "I'll take a root canal before Voris!"
In addition to the clear bias evidenced against Voris, de Laire's communications with Fisher are highly unusual. Most dioceses normally handle media queries through their communications department. It is clear from the email exchanges, however, that Fisher had a direct line to the vicar for canonical affairs. The nature of their exchanges also reveals a familiarity not typical of media and chancery staff.
De Laire admitted in a deposition that he and Fisher also texted on their phones.
De Laire himself has tried to downplay their association, denying he has ever had any "personal communications" with Fisher.
In a deposition on Oct. 13, 2021, he claimed the only conversations with Fisher involved "communications on Church matters," going on to deny he ever "interacts" with Fisher.
De Laire fought Church Militant's attempts to obtain his communications with anyone associated with the New Hampshire Union Leader, including Fisher, arguing that they would include "private" communications with reporters. He contradicted himself during his deposition, however, when he admitted he only discussed "Church matters" with reporters, specifically Damien Fisher.
In spite of this, the magistrate agreed with de Laire, a fact highlighted in Fisher's most recent article: "[Voris] was recently ordered to pay close to $6,000 in de Laire's legal fees for essentially wasting time pursuing overly broad and improper documents for requests."
Fisher fails to disclose, however, that those "documents" requested by Church Militant include Fisher's own communications with de Laire, communications neither Fisher nor de Laire wanted to be made known.
In other words, Fisher did not disclose that he personally was the subject of the discovery motion on which he himself reported.
This glaring and self-serving omission again calls into serious question Fisher's ethical standards as a journalist.
Church Militant was eventually able to obtain some communications between de Laire and Fisher through discovery served on a third party.
Contrary to de Laire's contention, the emails prove entirely relevant to the litigation, as they show not only that de Laire used Fisher to prosecute the SBC in the court of public opinion, but also that de Laire, because of his frequent, voluntary contacts (public and private) with media, could be considered a public figure.
De Laire has argued in his defamation lawsuit that he is not a public figure; being designated one would make it more difficult for him to prove his defamation case against Church Militant, as it sets a higher bar of proof for defamation.
Fisher was not the only media de Laire contacted. Emails from January 2019 show he also passed along tips about the SBC to Michael Davis, a writer for the Catholic Herald.
Davis emailed a copy of his article to de Laire for approval. He responded, "Well done," offering further tips and going on to thank the journalist "for his work and ministry."
De Laire's information was incorporated in the final version of the article published in the Catholic Herald on Jan. 17, 2019, which portrays the SBC in a negative light.
In an April 15, 2019 email, Fisher admits the New Hampshire Union Leader, for whom he once wrote, "is now very leery of citing the SPLC [Southern Poverty Law Center] in any story about the St. Benedict Center, given the recent controversies surrounding the SPLC."
Those controversies involve allegations that SPLC leadership was complicit "in decades of racial discrimination, gender discrimination and sexual harassment and/or assault." It led to a major shake-up at the company, including the ouster of co-founder Morris Dees and President Richard Cohen.
The SPLC, considered a discredited radical leftist organization, makes it a practice to place pro-life, faith-based, conservative groups on its annual "hate list." The SBC and Church Militant have been featured, along with Alliance Defending Freedom, C-Fam, Ruth Institute, and many other pro-family organizations.
While Fisher privately expressed hesitation about citing the SPLC, he has continued to freely quote them in his public reporting on the SBC and Church Militant.
In fact, Fisher has done little to hide his bias against Church Militant, particularly Michael Voris. In a March 18, 2022 tweet, in response to someone's question about this media organization, he wrote, "It's a 'News Org' run by a guy with a marmot on his head."
It’s a "News Org" run by a guy with a marmot on his head— Damien Fisher (@NhDamien) March 18, 2022
His remarks mirror those he made more than a decade ago, when he was blogging under the pseudonym "The Jerk" on his wife Simcha Fisher's blog.
"The Jerk" was known for being crude, crass and vulgar, posting juvenile humor peppered with odd imagery. Voris was frequently the target of his animus.
A 2011 post titled "The Jerk Reformed" begins: "Hi, I'm The Jerk. You might remember me from that time I got your cat pregnant."
Beneath a photo of Voris, Fisher remarks, "Nice marmot."
He spends the rest of his post mocking Voris, including the following excerpt:
During a recent bender that included cough medicine, Miller Genuine Draft and lots and lots of cat nip, I stumbled across this guy on Youtube. I know so much more about Real Catholicism now. Like this:
1. Harry Potter wants to sodomize your children.
2. All the bishops are secretly gay. All of them.
3. And the Jews are out to get me.
Talk about the Good News!
He then asks readers to pick a film for him to review, revealing a strange obsession with Jews:
We can go with:
The Highlander, starring famous secret Jew Sean Connery.
The Phantom, starring famous secret Jew Billy Zane.
The Expendables, starring famous secret Jew Sylvester Stallone.
A 2012 post by Fisher titled "Which One's Gilligan?" makes fun of Church Militant's annual Retreat at Sea, a week-long retreat for Catholics that offered theological talks, daily Mass, adoration, confession and the Rosary.
Calling it the "Michael Voris Love Boat," Fisher writes:
You know what's going to happen? Through some scheduling mix-up they put the Voris boat on the same ship as the next [drag queen] RuPaul cruise. At that point it's gonna play out like The Poseidon Adventure, with Voris leading a rag tag group of Traddies and Trannies through to safety.
Fisher made frequent mention of the "Jews," falsely accusing Voris of being anti-semitic. After complaints about the defamatory remarks, Simcha Fisher deleted them.
In recent comments, Damien Fisher stood by his blog post, tweeting on April 23, 2022, "I'm really proud of that one."
Among other things Fisher failed to disclose while writing about the diocese of Manchester is that his wife was at the time an employee of the diocese, writing as a columnist for the diocesan magazine "The Parable."
"If a public employee had such a substantive conflict of interest as Damien Fisher," wrote Doyle, "that individual would be facing ethics charges."
Questions linger as to whether de Laire still serves as a source for Fisher, this time using Fisher to wage a public media campaign against Church Militant.
C.J. Doyle noted:
The phrase "checkbook journalism" is understood to mean the practice of a reporter or media entity paying a source. The Fisher/GDL [Fr. Georges de Laire] relationship suggests, in my judgment, the possibility of an inversion of this process. Is it conceivable that the source, in this case, is possibly paying the reporter, or using the employment status of the reporter's spouse to leverage favorable coverage, or both?
"Fisher, in any event, is not engaged in journalism here," Doyle continued. "He is functioning as the publicist and press agent for GDL."
Fisher's one-sided reports on the defamation lawsuit, which only cite de Laire's legal arguments while painting Church Militant in the worst light possible, mirror his tactics against the SBC. The reports are often published immediately after the legal filings, leading some to think de Laire is the one alerting Fisher to the filings.
If so, it is further evidence de Laire is going far beyond his office as vicar for canonical affairs, colluding with media to prosecute his critics in the court of public opinion.
4/26/2022: This article has been updated with comments from C.J. Doyle.