A Scottish bishop accused of committing plagiarism in his doctoral dissertation told CNA that while he never intentionally committed any act of plagiarism, he will accept whatever consequences might come from the accusation.
“I can categorically state that there was absolutely never any intention to plagiarise any work,” Bishop Stephen Robson of Dunkeld, Scotland, told CNA on January 14th.
The bishop’s remarks came in response to a 2019 article in the scholarly journal Analecta Cisterciensia, written by the journal’s editor, Fr. Alkuin Schachenmayr, a Cistercian priest living in an Austrian monastery.
The article claimed that “there seem to be dozens of passages in Robson’s dissertation which are apparently identical or remarkably similar to texts published by other scholars, yet the author does not attribute these sources.”
“My work was checked every stage by Father Herbert Alphonso SJ my supervisor, now deceased. I repeat, whatever the person you mention has claimed, there was never any intention to deceive or plagiarise. I was simply trying to understand St Bernard a bit better,” Robson said.
Robson completed his dissertation, “With the Spirit and Power of Elijah (Lk 1,17). The Prophetic-Reforming Spirituality of Bernard of Clairvaux as Evidenced Particularly in his Letters,” at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University in 2003.
The text was awarded the university’s 2004 Premio Bellarmino, the annual prize given to the best dissertation completed at the university.
“One must ask whether the jury responsible for awards of excellence at the Gregorian succeeded in identifying one of the institution’s best dissertations of 2003,” Schachenmayr wrote.
Robson’s dissertation was also published as a 2004 book by the Gregorian University’s publishing house.
And while Robson insisted that he had no intention to plagiarize, he told CNA that he will accept the judgment of his alma mater regarding his dissertation.
“I am happy for the Gregorian to nullify my text if they think fit,” the bishop said.
Schachenmayr’s study noted that Robbson’s dissertation contained several passages identical or nearly identical to already published scholarship. Those passages give no indication of their source material.
Among the scholars from whom Robson apparently copied are Bruno Scott James, Jean Leclercq, Friedrich Kempf, and Robert Bartlett, according to Schachenmayr.
Some of those scholars were mentioned as sources in his dissertation, even while particular verbatim passages from them were reproduced without citation. In other cases, identical or nearly identical passages from published scholars who were never referenced as sources at all were included in the dissertation, Schachenmayr showed.
Schachenmayr also suggested that Robson might have used a plagiaristic technique called the “pawn sacrifice,” in order to avoid detection of plagiarism.
“Citing some sources with apparently great vigilance can be used as a way of distracting the reader from the fact that other passages are not properly cited,” Schachenmayr explained.
Regarding the scholars from whom Schachenmayr reports he seems to have plagiarized, Robson told CNA: “I recognise some of the authors you have quoted and did quote from them.”
Still, he said, “the authors cited can only have been a minor part of what work I did as far as I can remember.”
Robson told CNA that he completed his studies- a doctorate in sacred theology as well as a licentiate in canon law- while he was serving as a spiritual director for seminarians at the Pontifical Scots College, where he was assigned from 1998 to 2006.
He studied during that time “to prevent myself going mad,” the bishop said.
“I have never claimed to be an academic and have not touched any study – I have not had time – since I came home,” he added.
“The studies were never really important to me – simply a means to spending what would have been otherwise an uncomfortable few years in the heat of Rome.”
“My directees were the much more important part of my work,” the bishop added.
Robson is a convert to Catholicism; he became a Catholic in his late teens. The bishop was ordained a priest in 1979, and worked in pastoral ministry, and as secretary to the eventually disgraced Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who resigned from the rights and duties of a cardinal in 2015 amid allegations of predatory sexual behavior toward priests and seminarians.
Robson was assigned to the Scottish seminary in Rome in 1998.
He told CNA he “had no desire to become a bishop…and yet was appointed in 2012 as an auxiliary bishop and as an Ordinary since 2013.”
After two years as an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, Robson became Bishop of Dunkeld in January 2014.
The bishop served from 2013-2015 as a member of the McLellan Commission, which studied the Catholic Church in Scotland’s handling of clerical sexual abuse claims and the culture that allowed abuse to occur.
Priests who know Robson described him to CNA as a supporter of his priests, “a Catholic, and a believer.”
The bishop is regarded as an outspoken pro-life advocate and an advocate for Catholic education. In 2019, the bishop launched in his diocese a “Year of Re-Evangelisation” and a formation program for catechists.
That initiative, he said, was inspired by Pope Francis.
“His vision of missionary discipleship is something that really struck me but more than that his manner was so open, especially about making our parishes places of missionary disciples. All we can do now is try,” Robson told the Scottish Catholic Observer in January 2019.
At the bishop’s installation Mass in 2014, he told Catholics that “to build up communion in love means concentrated work, and that can be only done with time and many, many hands to help that.”
“Pastoral work, the work of a shepherd, involves being able to serve the people,” he said.
In addition to leaving a decision about his dissertation in the hands of the Gregorian University, Robson said he will accept any other consequences that might come from the allegation of plagiarism.
“I am sure Francis has far more worrying things to fret about than me. But if he wants my resignation, he may have it freely,” the bishop said.