National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  July 18, 2003

Keating was wrong choice at the outset


Former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating resigned last month as chair of the U.S. bishops’ National Review Board, which monitors the enforcement of their sexual abuse policy adopted a year ago in Dallas.

Leaders of organizations, such as the Survivor’s Network for those Abused by Priests, SNAP, dedicated to the interests of survivors of sexual abuse, as well as leaders of lay movements, such as Voice of the Faithful, saw the resignation as a telling sign of the bishops’ failure to honor their commitment of last June.

Keating had exposed their stonewalling and foot-dragging, and the bishops did not like that one bit. Did they expect the National Review Board to operate as a compliant adjunct of the bishops’ conference rather than as a genuinely independent body?

Leading members of the hierarchy, on the other hand, thought that Keating was out of control, that his public attacks on the bishops (and not just his final comparison of their behavior to that of La Cosa Nostra) had undermined his effectiveness as chair of the National Review Board.

Even a majority of the board itself thought Keating had crossed the line of appropriate public comment and needed to step aside. Some of those members, notably Robert Bennett, a prominent Washington attorney who had served as a defense lawyer for President Clinton, insisted, however, that he shared Keating’s impatience with some of the bishops and he pledged that the board would continue to do its work in as vigorous a manner as possible.

Bennett put his finger on the essence of the problem that had provoked Keating’s outburst. “Those bishops who are not cooperating,” he told The New York Times, “must start acting like pastors and shepherds of their flock, and stop acting like risk assessment officers of insurance companies.”

He also criticized the “culture of secrecy” that permeates the hierarchy and that “has gotten them into a lot of trouble.” They have to understand, Bennett said, “that it will not work anymore, and that they must be open, they must be transparent and they must be accountable.”

While there was sufficient blame to go around for the Keating flap, the responsibility remained largely with the bishops themselves -- not only with those who have been uncooperative, but also with the conference leadership that appointed Keating as chair of the National Review Board and that guided him in the selection of its membership.

“Guided” may be too soft a word. One suspects that they held veto power over individual appointments.

Whatever his other personal merits, Keating was ill-equipped to lead this crucially important panel. Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, committed a major error of judgment in selecting him.

It was not just that the governor had a reputation for speaking his mind. That in itself could have been an asset rather than a liability.

The heart of the problem with his appointment was not so much his hard-right political record as his uninformed and narrow religious outlook.

Too often those characteristics are equated -- inaccurately and unfairly -- with “conservatism.” “Conservative” Catholics are not necessarily any more “uninformed” or “narrow” in their religious views than are “liberal” Catholics. The dividing line between them is over how they interpret facts, not whether they are well-informed and open-minded.

Asked several months ago for his own assessment of the sexual-abuse crisis, Keating tipped his hand in citing two books that he had found most helpful in analyzing the scandal: George Weigel’s The Courage To Be Catholic, and Michael Rose’s Goodbye, Good Men: How Liberals Brought Corruption into the Catholic Church.

This is not the place to review either of those books. Suffice it to say that, in the judgment of this writer, both books offer too simplistic an explanation of the crisis and in too ideologically biased a fashion. Had Keating also mentioned the writings of Fr. Donald Cozzens, for example his The Changing Face of the Priesthood, one might have concluded that he was only trying to familiarize himself with all sides of the discussion. But that was not the case.

Given his theological perspective, the governor, like so many Catholics of similar orientation, must have assumed at the outset that the bishops as a group are next to God, well above the rest of us on the spiritual ladder but somewhere below the pope who appointed them.

When episcopal behavior contradicted that assumption, he had only the analyses of writers such as Weigel and Rose to fall back on.

He saw the problem as a moral failure of individuals, and not also as systemic and institutional.

Ironically, the bishops who fired him see it that way, too.

Fr. Richard McBrien is the Crowley-O’Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

National Catholic Reporter, July 18, 2003

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