The Roman Catholic bishop of Covington, Ky., released an investigative report on Wednesday that he said showed a group of high school students from his diocese “did not instigate” a widely publicized encounter with a Native American man outside the Lincoln Memorial last month.
“Our students were placed in a situation that was at once bizarre and even threatening,” the bishop, Roger J. Foys, said in a statement with the report. “Their reaction to the situation was, given the circumstances, expected and one might even say laudatory.”
Bishop Foys said the report realized his hope that an investigation would “exonerate” the students.
The diocese hired a private detective agency that developed a detailed account of an encounter that was captured on video and quickly became a lightning rod for political and racial tensions in America.
The mostly white students, many of them wearing “Make America Great Again” gear, were in Washington on Jan. 18 to attend an anti-abortion March for Life rally when they intersected with a Native American man, Nathan Phillips, and others from an Indigenous Peoples March. Nearby, a group of black Hebrew Israelites were shouting slurs at the boys and Native Americans on the scene.
Covington Catholic High School and the diocese, along with a chorus of political commentators, had at first condemned the behavior of the students after a short clip spread rapidly on social media that showed an apparent standoff between Mr. Phillips and an unidentified teenager in a MAGA hat. The diocese even said the students could face expulsion.
But within a day, longer videos began to circulate that showed a more complicated scene at the memorial, and supporters of President Trump rallied to their side.
Through a public relations firm, the teenager in the MAGA hat put out a statement identifying himself as Nick Sandmann and stating that he had been confused by the encounter and had been trying to avoid conflict.
Bishop Foys later apologized for rushing to judgment, telling parents in a letter, “We should not have allowed ourselves to be bullied and pressured into making a statement prematurely.”
The agency hired by the diocese, Greater Cincinnati Investigation, said it had spent about 240 hours on the investigation, including examining online video and interviewing 43 students and 13 adult chaperones, including educators and parents. Investigators could not reach Mr. Phillips for an interview, despite traveling to his home in Michigan, and had to rely on Mr. Sandmann’s written statement, according to the final report.
Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Ky.CreditAaron Borton for The New York Times
Among the findings:
• When Mr. Phillips approached the students, students told investigators, they thought he was coming to join in their school cheers, which they had begun to drown out “offensive statements” by the Hebrew Israelites. “None of the students felt threatened by Mr. Phillips and many stated they were ‘confused,’” the report said.
• Investigators found “no evidence of offensive or racist statements by students to Mr. Phillips or members of his group.” But the report said some “joined in” with his chanting and some performed a “tomahawk chop.”
• Some boys said a chaperone warned them they would face detention “if they engaged in a verbal exchange” with the Hebrew Israelites.
• Most students bought their “Make America Great Again” apparel while in Washington. In past years, chaperones said, some students had bought “Hope” hats in support of President Barack Obama. Investigators said there was no school policy prohibiting political apparel on school trips.
• Investigators did not find evidence that the students chanted about building a wall at the border with Mexico, as Mr. Phillips had said.
“The immediate worldwide reaction to the initial video led almost everyone to believe that our students had initiated the incident and the perception of those few minutes of video became reality,” Bishop Foys wrote.
L. Lin Wood, a lawyer for Mr. Sandmann, said the report released by the diocese confirmed the truth of the teenager’s account. Lawyers for Mr. Sandmann have pledged to examine the actions of the school, diocese, various commentators and news organizations, including The New York Times.
“Every member of the mainstream and social media mob who falsely attacked, disparaged, or threatened this 16-year-old boy should hang their heads in shame and be held fully accountable in a court of law for their wrongdoing,” Mr. Wood said in an email.
Mr. Phillips could not be reached for comment about the report, which said there were inconsistencies in his accounts of what happened.
On Wednesday, Chase Iron Eyes, a spokesman for the Indigenous Peoples Movement, which organized the march, criticized the investigation as showing “a serious lack of understanding about the intrinsic, racist culture” in the United States.
“We feel that our elder is vindicated by the videos that are out there right now,” he said. “We would expect the adults that are responsible for these children to take responsibility for the racism, or ignorance, that is represented by their children doing the tomahawk chop.”