Catholic League (U.S.)

Catholic League (U.S.)
Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights

Logo of the Catholic League
Abbreviation CL
Formation 1973
Type NGO
Legal status Non-profit
Purpose/focus Roman Catholic advocacy
Headquarters New York City, New York
Location New York
Region served United States
Membership 233,333 paid members (1999)[1]
Official languages English
Leader Bill Donohue,
President and CEO
Bernadette Brady, Vice-President
Budget USD $2.75 million
(fiscal year 2008)
$22.7 million in assets[2]
Staff 13[2]

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, often shortened to the Catholic League, is an American Catholic anti-defamation and civil rights organization. The Catholic League states that it "defends the right of Catholics – lay and clergy alike – to participate in American public life without defamation or discrimination."[3] The Catholic League states that it is "motivated by the letter and the spirit of the First Amendment safeguard both the religious freedom rights and the free speech rights of Catholics whenever and wherever they are threatened."[3] According to the Encyclopedia of American Religion and Politics, the League "is regarded by many as the preeminent organization representing the views of American lay Catholics."[4]

Founded in 1973 by Jesuit priest Virgil Blum, the Catholic League was formed to counter discrimination against Catholics in the U.S. government and in popular culture. The low-profile group initiated public education campaigns and some lawsuits. In 1993 the group became much more aggressive with a new president, former sociology professor William A. Donohue, who also increased its size to become the largest Catholic civil rights organization in America.[4] The Catholic League is known for press releases about what it views as anti-Catholic and anti-Christian themes in mass media.

The Catholic League in its role as religious watchdog has reacted to entertainment industry bigotry, certain art exhibits, school programs for sex education, government-funded contraception and abortion, media bias, restrictions against pro-life activism, restrictions on religious schools; whatever they perceive as anti-Catholic.[5] The Catholic League keeps a staff of litigators to defend the Catholic Church in court.[6] It publishes a journal, Catalyst, and a website.

The League under Donohue's leadership is criticized for its conservatism and for its combative responses to high-profile media stories.[4][7] Besides education campaigns, the group issues condemnations, initiates boycotts and protests, defends priests against accusations of child sexual abuse, fights proposed legislation and threatens legal action against what it sees as bigotry against Catholics, irreverence against religious figures, and attacks on Catholic dogma.[4][8] However, the Catholic League stresses that "it does not speak authoritatively for the Church as a whole."[4]


Organizational overview


The League was founded in Milwaukee in 1973 by Virgil C. Blum S.J.[3][9] Blum served as president of the Catholic League until 1989.

William A. Donohue

Since 1993, the League has been led by its Board of Directors president, William A. Donohue, who works with a small number of organizational staffers including Kiera McCaffrey, the League's director of communications, who has also made media appearances for the group.[10] In a 1999 New York Times article, a reporter said Donohue is pragmatic in regards to religion, "media savvy" and "steers clear of divisive debates on theological doctrines and secular politics".[1] The article said Donohue "fans simmering anger with inflammatory news releases, a Web site and newsletter"[1] with "scathing attacks on the blasphemous and the irreverent".[1] In a 2007 interview, Salon Life staff writer Rebecca Traister discussed Donohue with Frances Kissling, former head of the dissident organization Catholics for Choice, who characterized Donohue as "abusive", and stated she avoided doing media interviews with him for this reason.[11]

Operations and organization

The League is organized under a Board of Directors chaired by Philip K. Eichner, a Marianist priest and educator in Long Island, New York. The League also has Board of Advisors, consisting of prominent lay Catholics like Brent Bozell, Linda Chavez, Mary Ann Glendon, Alan Keyes, Tom Monaghan, Michael Novak and George Weigel.[3] The League issues a journal, Catalyst, as well as reports, such as Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust, books, brochures and an annual Report on Anti-Catholicism.

Association with the Catholic Church

The League is not part of the Archdiocese of New York, though it does rent an office on the same floor as the headquarters of the Archdiocese.[1] According to a New York Times interviewer, the organization "maintains close ties to the [archdiocesan] leadership. Several bishops make personal donations. Cardinal O'Connor spoke at the group's 25th anniversary reception in 1998 and vacated part of his suite for its expanding operations, said Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York."[1] The League includes on its website endorsements from such prominent clerics as Cardinal Edward Egan (former Archbishop of New York), Cardinal Roger Mahony (former Archbishop of Los Angeles), Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, and Archbishop Edwin O'Brien of Baltimore, as well as Father Benedict Groeschel, C.F.R., all of whom have endorsed the League's activities and exhorted Catholics to become members.[3]


The New York Times reported that the group had 11,000 total members when Donohue took over the Catholic League in 1993. This grew to 233,333 paid members in 1999, a figure which the League allegedly multiplies by 1.5 to account for non-paying members in the households of paying members, resulting in a League estimate of 350,000 members.[1] This 1999 estimate is the last statement about overall membership numbers that the League has made. The League's 2003 statement about membership claimed 15,000 members in Nassau and Suffolk counties of New York alone.[12] Annual donations entitle members to home delivery of the print version of Catalyst, the group's monthly journal, which is also available for free on the Catholic League's website.

Political alignment

The Catholic League claims political neutrality, which is mostly required of non-profits. The website states, "The League wishes to be neither left nor right, liberal or conservative, revolutionary or reactionary."[3] Although often characterized as conservative[13][14][15][16] the League has at times been at odds with conservative figures and organizations. For example, they criticized the anti-illegal immigration group, the Minutemen, for opposing a San Diego priest's facilitation of employment for Latino immigrants and for condemning the Church as a whole in public statements about the matter.[17] The Catholic League also condemned pastor and televangelist John Hagee for what they called "anti-Catholic hate speech" and called upon John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign to renounce this alleged bigotry.[18]

Christian Leftist John Swomley characterized the Catholic League as the "most dangerous of the far-right organizations."[4] Donohue has been called "right-wing"[19] and "a conservative reactionary who wants to undo the work of Vatican II and suppress varying opinions within the Church."[20]


Joan Osborne

In 1996, Donohue took issue with Joan Osborne over her song "One of Us", which explores the question of what it would be like if God were a human being.[21] Donohue questioned the point of the song and brought up her activism calling for support of Rock for Choice and other pro-choice groups stating, "It is no wonder that Joan Osborne instructs her fans to donate their time and money to Planned Parenthood. It is of a piece with her politics and her prejudices. Her songs and videos offer a curious mix of both, the effect of which is to dance awfully close to the line of Catholic baiting."[22] Religious educator Paul Moses stated that Donohue's was a "tortured reading" and he saw Osborne as having "the Catholic imagination" with the song "awakening...spiritual hunger".[23] Osborne said, in a letter to fans, that "the church's attitudes toward women and gays make the pope look far more ridiculous than any pop song could" and that she did not write the song, which "speaks of the pope only with respect."[23] Donohue also admitted that he was treating the issue in a "kind of a prophylactic approach" because "cultures are changed as a result of patterns."[23]

Nothing Sacred

In 1997, Donohue declared the ABC show Nothing Sacred as deeply offensive to Catholicism, although not anti-Catholic in the traditional sense.[24][25] Calling for a boycott, he stated that the show portrayed Catholics with a traditional view as cold or cruel while glorifying more the maverick, irreverent voices in the community. However, the show was defended by some Catholics and had been written with the consultation of Jesuits, from which it later won the Humanitas Prize. Many Catholics agreed with him that the show was hostile to the beliefs and values of the Catholic Church, and ABC canceled Nothing Sacred after less than a season, reportedly for poor ratings. Observers think Donohue may have played a significant role in the show's rapid demise as advertisers often become leery of shows deemed "controversial".[26][27] With regard to the controversy, Henry Herx, director of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Office of Film and Broadcast (successor to the Legion of Decency) emphasized that the Catholic League is not an official agency of the church.[28]


The year 1999 saw the release of Kevin Smith's controversial film Dogma. Despite the fact that Smith is a practicing Catholic, as Kevin Smith confirmed in an interview on the film's DVD, several religious groups, especially the Catholic League, said the film was anti-Catholic and blasphemous, and organized protests, including one that took place at the November 12 premiere of the film at Lincoln Center in New York City.

Smith noted that several of the protests occurred before the film was even finished, suggesting that the protests were more about media attention for the groups than for whatever was controversial about the film.[29] The Catholic League's main complaints were that the film's main character is supposedly a descendant of Mary, who happens to work in an abortion clinic, which were seen as ironic conventions for a Catholic.[citation needed] The film's distributor, Miramax, removed its name from the production, and hired attorney Dan Petrocelli to defend it publicly. Petrocelli accused Donohue of trying to stir a violent reaction to the film.

According to Smith, "[Donohue] actually invited me out to have a beer after making my life hell for six months."[30]

The Passion of the Christ

Donohue is a staunch defender of Mel Gibson's controversial movie The Passion of the Christ. On the March 12, 2004 broadcast of Scarborough Country, he stated:

"Well, first [critics of the film] said The Passion of the Christ was anti-Semitic. That didn't work. Then they said it was too violent. That didn't work. Then they said it was S&M. That didn't work. Then they said it was pornography. That didn't work. Now they're saying it's fascistic queer-bashing. That kind of language would ordinarily get somebody taken away in a straitjacket and -- put you in the asylum. I don't know what about -- the queer-bashing is all about. I'm pretty good about picking out who queers are and I didn't see any in the movie. I'm usually pretty good at that."[31]

On the December 8 broadcast of the same show, with Pat Buchanan as host, Donohue said:

Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. It's not a secret, OK? And I‘m not afraid to say it. That's why they hate this movie. It's about Jesus Christ, and it's about truth. It's about the Messiah.[32]

Bush holiday cards

After U.S. President George W. Bush used the term "Holidays" instead of "Christmas" on the White House 2005 Christmas cards, Donohue stated "The Bush administration has suffered a loss of will and...they have capitulated to the worst elements in our culture."[33]

Michael Savage

"I was scheduled to be on with Mike Savage the day he savaged the Catholic Church and made bigoted comments about Latinos", Donohue said.

"But in the pre-interview — which occurred just a half hour before Savage went ballistic — I let a producer know that I did not share the host's position; after he checked with Savage, I was told they would not have me on the show. That was fine, but what is not fine is Savage's diatribe about the 'greedy pigs' in the Catholic Church and how 'the institution is rotten from the top to the bottom.' He owes all Catholics an apology."[34]

John Edwards campaign staffers

Donohue demanded that former Sen. John Edwards fire two presidential campaign staffers in February 2007, charging that they were "anti-Catholic, vulgar, trash-talking bigots." He cited a blog written by Amanda Marcotte regarding the Church's opposition to birth control, saying it forces women "to bear more tithing Catholics". He also cited another posting called "Pope and Fascists". Donohue also objected to one of the staffers describing President Bush's "wingnut Christofacist base".

Donohue called the statements "incendiary" and "inflammatory", saying, "It's scurrilous and has no place being part of someone's resume who's going to work for a potential presidential contender." On February 8, John Edwards addressed the writings of the staffers, Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan, saying ‘that kind of intolerant language will not be permitted from anyone on my campaign, whether it's intended as satire, humor or anything else.’[citation needed] Donohue insisted that Edwards fire the pair immediately.

After the complaints, Marcotte wrote, "The Christian version of the virgin birth is generally interpreted as super-patriarchal where God is viewed as so powerful he can impregnate without befouling himself by touching a woman, and women are nothing but vessels." After Marcotte parted with the campaign, Donohue stated, "It is not enough that one foul-mouthed anti-Christian bigot, Amanda Marcotte, has quit. Melissa McEwan must go as well. Either Edwards shows her the door or she bolts on her own. There is no third choice—the Catholic League will see to it that this issue won't go away." He continued, "The Edwards campaign is in total disarray and the meltdown will continue unless McEwan is removed from his staff. The fact that Marcotte had to quit suggests that Edwards doesn't have the guts to do what is morally right." McEwan resigned on February 13, 2007,[35] citing the hostility of the Catholic League and emails threatening rape and murder.[36]

Kathy Griffin

On September 8, 2007, Kathy Griffin won her first Emmy for season two of reality show Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List. Griffin stirred up controversy with her acceptance speech, saying that "a lot of people come up here and thank Jesus for this award. I want you to know that no one had less to do with this award than Jesus. He didn't help me a bit." She went on to hold up her Emmy and say, "Suck it, Jesus, this award is my god now!"[37]

Her remarks were quickly condemned by Donohue, who urged the TV academy to "denounce Griffin's obscene and blasphemous comment."[38] After the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences decided to censor Griffin's remark, Donohue said, "The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences reacted responsibly to our criticism of Kathy Griffin's verbal assault on 85 percent of the U.S. population. The ball is now in Griffin's court. The self-described 'complete militant atheist' needs to make a swift and unequivocal apology to Christians. If she does, she will get this issue behind her. If she does not, she will be remembered as a foul-mouthed bigot for the rest of her life.”[39]

In a statement issued by her publicist, Griffin responded to the denouncement by the Catholic League with a question: "Am I the only Catholic left with a sense of humor?"[40]

The Golden Compass

As part of a two-month protest campaign, Donohue called for a boycott of the film The Golden Compass, believing that while the religious elements of the film would be "watered down" from the source novels, the film would still encourage children to read the series, which Donohue says "denigrates Christianity" and promotes "atheism for kids",[41] citing author Philip Pullman as saying that he is "trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief."[42] Donohue hopes that "the film [will fail] to meet box office expectations and that [Pullman's] books attract few buyers."[43] The call for a boycott resulted in action by some Catholic groups in the US and Canada, and a Catholic school board in Ontario has ordered the source novel removed from its library shelves. Pullman has since said that the books do not have a religious agenda, saying of Donohue's call for a boycott, "Why don't we trust readers? Why don't we trust filmgoers? Oh, it causes me to shake my head with sorrow that such nitwits could be loose in the world."[44] Pullman described the Catholic League as "a tiny, unrepresentative organisation," suggesting that "the only person Bill Donohue represents is himself."[45]

Other evangelical groups, such as The Christian Film and Television Commission, adopted a "wait-and-see" approach to the film before deciding upon any action,[46] as did the Roman Catholic Church in Britain.[44]

Some commentators indicated that they believe the criticism will prove ultimately impotent and that the negative publicity will prove a boon for the film's box office.[47][48]

Eucharist incident

In July 2008, a controversy arose surrounding a Communion rite altercation involving Webster Cook, a student and member of the University of Central Florida (UCF) student senate. Cook attended a Catholic Mass on campus and was given the Eucharist but walked out without consuming it. This action was allegedly related to his protest of the use of public funds for organized worship in the student union hall. According to Donohue, Cook's actions were a form of desecration of the sacrament. Cook was proposed for censure by the student senate and was criticized by local media. He also received numerous death threats from enraged Catholics.[49][50]

On Pharyngula, biologist and University of Minnesota Morris (UMM) professor PZ Myers publicly expressed support for Cook as well as outrage that Fox News appeared to be inciting readers to cause further problems for the student; he also ridiculed reports that armed guards would attend the next mass.[49][51][52] Myers invited readers to acquire some consecrated Eucharistic Hosts, which he described as "crackers", for him to treat "with profound disrespect."[53]

The Catholic League accused Myers of anti-Catholic bigotry and asked UMM and the Minnesota State Legislature to take action against Myers.[54][55] Myers then also received threats and hate mail.[56] The Catholic League also called for Cook to be expelled from the university, with Donohue describing his confiscation of the Eucharist as a hate crime as well as a form of kidnapping.[53] Donohue also accused those who supported Cook of anti-Catholic bigotry, and sent a letter to the UCF asking them to take legal action against Cook.[57] A week after the initial communion Cook apologized and returned the Host. The Catholic League, however, continued to lobby the university for his expulsion.[57]

Boycott of Roger Smith Hotel

In March 2007, a sculpture created by Italian-Canadian artist Cosimo Cavallaro was to be displayed at Manhattan's Roger Smith Hotel. The sculpture, entitled "My Sweet Lord", was of a crucified Christ, nude, in molded chocolate. Although the artist claims to be himself a practicing Catholic, Bill Donohue decried the work as "hate speech", "garbage", and "one of the worst assaults on Christian sensibilities ever,"[58] describing Mr. Cavallaro as a "loser artist" and telling him in a television interview on Anderson Cooper 360, "You're lucky I'm not like the Taliban, because you would lose more than your head."

Under the leadership of Donohue, the Catholic League organized a boycott of the hotel aimed at forcing it to remove the statue. The hotel's management stating that the protests "brought to our attention the unintended reaction of you and other conscientious friends", eventually agreed to the League's calls, prompting the curator of the gallery, Matt Semler, to resign in protest.[58] Semler claimed the six-foot sculpture was the victim of "a strong-arming from people who haven't seen the show, seen what we're doing. They jumped to conclusions completely contrary to our intentions."[58]

Church child sex abuse issue

Donohue said, in October 2009, that the Catholic Church has a "homosexual", not a "pedophilia", problem, citing the John Jay Report.[59]

Irish Child Abuse Commission

On May 20, 2009, Reuters reported the results of a nine-year investigation by the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, which looked into decades of endemic sexual abuse against children in Catholic-run reform schools in Ireland.[60] In reaction to this report, popularly known as the Ryan report, Donohue issued a statement downplaying the seriousness of the cases, questioning the inclusion of voyeurism and "inappropriate sexual talk" as instances of sexual abuse along with the more serious charge of rape.[61] Donohue pointed out that rape constituted only 12% of the listed sexual abuse cases in the Ryan report, and that priests committed only 12% of the listed rapes—the other 88% were committed by lay persons and religious brothers.[61]

Since the Ryan report was released, Donohue has been defending the Church and claiming that much of the outrage is 'moral hysteria'. While stating that he agrees that rape and physical abuse are wrong and that he would not defend those actions, he says the report has conflated these abuses with 'lesser' forms of punishment and is therefore not as serious. He also says many of the purported forms of abuse found by the commission were present and acceptable in the time period.[62]

The Irish politician and child rape victim Colm O'Gorman was highly critical of such statements made by Donohue on the Irish radio show The Last Word.[62] O'Gorman later wrote that Donohue's analysis was shockingly "simplistic".[63]

Harry Knox and the White House faith-based office

When President Barack Obama named gay activist[64] Harry Knox to the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in 2009, Donohue termed him "an anti-Catholic bigot who has called the pope a liar."[64]

David Wojnarowicz and National Portrait Gallery

In November 2010, a portion of a video by the late artist David Wojnarowicz, which was included in an exhibit focused on gay-themed art, "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" at the National Portrait Gallery (United States), was removed after complaints from the Catholic League.[65] Columnist Frank Rich said of the intervention and removal that the Smithsonian had been "bullied by bigots" and quoted The Los Angeles Times"s art critic, Christopher Knight, to the same effect.[66] Tracing the evolution of the issue, Rich cited a piece by Kriston Capps which in turn said "the role of Penny Starr remains hazy. [However, a]...reporter and conservative advocate, [Starr] deserves much credit for both instigating" the negative attention to the piece of art amongst a number in the show.[67]


Donohue and the Catholic League have been criticized by other Catholics, who have accused them of being overly sensitive in the identification of anti-Catholicism.[68] Jesuit priest James Martin, the associate editor of the Catholic magazine America says, "Often their criticism is right on target, but frequently they speak without seeing or experiencing what they are critiquing, and that undercuts their credibility. Unfortunately, that type of response gives people the idea that the Catholic Church is unreflective."[1]

At a 2005 event entitled “Justice Sunday”, advertised as “a rally to portray Democrats as being against people of faith”, Donohue shared the stage with Southern Baptist leader Albert Mohler, who has himself been accused of anti-Catholic views.[69]

See also


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  6. ^ Weaver 1995, p. 108
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  10. ^ Showbiz Tonight Transcript of CNN's Showbiz Tonight episode, aired 8 May 2006
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  18. ^ Catholic League: McCain's Next Move
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  30. ^ Croft & Reiter, The Fix, Jan. 23, 2004
  31. ^ William Donohue, NNDB (NNDB doesn't give source, 2011-07-14)
  32. ^ "'Scarborough Country' for Dec. 8", Transcript for 10 p.m. ET show updated 12/9/2004 10:48:12 AM ET. Retrieved 2012-12-12.
  33. ^ Davis, Matthew Lines drawn in battle over Christmas, BBC News, December 10, 2005
  34. ^ Savage Remarks Anger Catholics,, April 3, 2006
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  36. ^ McEwan, Melissa (2007-02-16). "My life as a rightwing target". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 2007-04-03. "The truth is, being a firebrand of any political persuasion does not warrant rape and death threats." 
  37. ^ "Kathy Griffin's Jesus Remark Cut from Emmy Show". Reuters. 2007-09-11. Retrieved 2007-09-25. 
  38. ^ Lynn Elber (11 Sept 2007). "Griffin's Emmy remarks to be censored". AP Television. Retrieved 2007-09-11. [dead link]
  39. ^ Academy to Censor Kathy Griffin; She Still Needs to Apologize
  40. ^ "Kathy Griffin's Jesus Remark Cut from Emmy Show". Reuters. 2007-09-11. Retrieved 2009-10-21. 
  41. ^ "Film Sells Atheism To Kids; Major Protest Launched". October 9, 2007. Retrieved 2007-10-09. 
  42. ^ Alona Wartofsky (2001-02-19). "The Last Word". Washington Post. Retrieved 2007-10-17. 
  43. ^ Mary McSweeney (2007-10-13). "Catholic League condemns 'The Golden Compass'". Washington Post. Retrieved 2007-10-18. 
  44. ^ a b David Byers (2007-11-27). "Philip Pullman: Catholic boycotters are 'nitwits'". London: The Times. Retrieved 2007-11-28. 
  45. ^ "Golden Compass Author Hits Back"
  46. ^ Catherine Donaldson-Evans (2007-10-29). "Christian Groups Claim Pro-Atheist 'Stealth Campaign' in Nicole Kidman Fantasy Film 'The Golden Compass'". Fox News.,2933,305487,00.html. Retrieved 2007-10-30. 
  47. ^ "Is ‘The Golden Compass’ Too Anti-Christian, or Not Anti-Christian Enough?". New York Magazine. 2007-10-16. Retrieved 2007-10-18. 
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  58. ^ a b c "Display of Controversial 'Chocolate Jesus' Sculpture Cancelled"
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  65. ^ Trescott, Jacqueline (2010-11-30), "Ant-covered Jesus video removed from Smithsonian after Catholic League complains", Washington Post,, retrieved 2010-11-30 
  66. ^ Rich, Frank, "Gay Bashing at the Smithsonian", Op-ed, The New York Times, December 11, 2010 (December 12, 2010 p. WK8 NY ed.). Retrieved 2010-12-12.
  67. ^ Capps, Kriston, "A Fire in Her Belly: Penny Starr, the Conservative Activist Who Punked the Smithsonian",, Dec. 8, 2010, 5:41 pm ET. Linked to Starr, Penny, "Smithsonian Christmas-Season Exhibit Features Ant-Covered Jesus, Naked Brothers Kissing, Genitalia, and Ellen DeGeneres Grabbing Her Breasts: WARNING: This story contains graphic photographs of items on display in an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery",, November 29, 2010. The Starr article discusses the editing of the video from 30 minutes to four and the soundtrack added to the piece shown at the NPG. Retrieved 2010-12-12
  68. ^ , "Donohue's crusade: tilting at the wrong windmill - Catholic League for Religious and Civil Liberties head William A. Donohue" column by David R. Carlin, Jr., Commonweal, May 23, 1997
  69. ^ “Justice Sunday Preachers” The Nation online, 26 April 2005

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