It would be impossible to count the number of people who have suggested that America’s Roman Catholic bishops should not hide or suppress evidence of clerical wrongdoing. This advice is so obvious as to be banal: Who could possible disagree? Who could possibly take offense?
Frank Keating, the former Oklahoma governor and head of a national commission charged with investigating the church’s abuse scandal, is among the uncounted legions who have stated the obvious. Regrettably, he recently added a rhetorical flourish to this otherwise bland and non-newsworthy utterance, saying that it would “unhealthy” for the bishops “to act like La Cosa Nostra.” Actually, that’s pretty obvious, too: He would be hard-pressed to find somebody who thought such behavior was healthy. But some folks, even bishops, get ornery when they are mentioned in the same sentence as a group of ruthless killers. And so Mr. Keating is on his way out as chairman of the church’s National Review Board.
Mr. Keating’s resignation will hurt the commission’s effort to expose and root out the culture of cover-up that has disgraced the church and overshadowed its good works and extraordinary people. Just as damaging, however, is the impression that Mr. Keating was forced to resign because he is an uppity layman who dared to question the unassailable.
The tip-off came in a quote from Roger Mahony, the cardinal archbishop of Los Angeles, who said that Mr. Keating’s inappropriate comparison was “the final straw.” This suggests that Mr. Keating has heaped upon His Eminence and his brothers an accumulation of weighty burdens. What might they be? Skeptical inquiries? Intimations of disapproval? Lack of due deference? My guess would be all of the above. Mr. Keating told the Los Angeles Times that his work with the National Review Commission gave him a glimpse of “an underside” of the church “that I never knew existed. I have not had my faith questioned but I have certainly concluded that a number of serious officials have very clay feet. That is disappointing and educational, but it’s a fact.”
These are not the kind of words that bishops are accustomed to hearing from a layperson. Some clearly would rather return to the days when the laity simply did what it was told: The archbishop of Newark, John Myers, took the rather unusual step of banning a lay group called Voice of the Faithful, even though it didn’t exist within his jurisdiction. The cardinal archbishop of New York, Edward Egan, wouldn’t allow members of the Keating panel to attend a function sponsored by the Knights of Malta, a Catholic-in-good-standing charitable group.
Making matters worse, Mr. Keating is immune to the usual counterattacks leveled at Catholic critics of the church: He is orthodox on abortion, has made no noises about married priests and has no subversive “agenda” to push-the usual charges made against liberal and moderate Catholics.
So what are other Catholics, and the general public, to make of Mr. Keating’s resignation? How are we to avoid the conclusion that Mr. Keating, who describes himself as a “tough, no-nonsense Catholic,” was shown the door for reasons other than an unfortunate choice of words?
A shrewd strategy presents itself, but implementing it would take a fair degree of audacity (that shouldn’t be a problem) and wit (well, it’s worth a try). The bishops could make the argument that Mr. Keating was unsuitable from the beginning because of his dissent from Church teaching.
This is the sort of charge usually flung at liberal Catholics, but Mr. Keating is a fine Republican from the heartland who has not wavered in his support for pro-life causes. How, then, could he be considered a dangerous dissident intent on subverting Catholic dogma?
As governor of Oklahoma, Mr. Keating was so delighted with the punitive power of the death penalty that he vetoed legislation that would exempt the mentally retarded. His record on this score would rival that of his onetime neighbor, that transplanted New England WASP, George W. Bush. The difference, of course, is that Mr. Bush, being Protestant, had no elderly figure in white robes hectoring him about the “culture of death” and other such unpleasantness. Why, Mr. Keating even had the nerve to challenge the Pope’s position on the death penalty-a sure sign that he couldn’t be trusted to investigate the church’s sexual-abuse scandal.
And then, on the matter of the poor, Mr. Keating demonstrated a willful and woeful ignorance of the church’s insistence that they be treated with dignity and compassion. He cut welfare payments and tried to block nursing-home patients from receiving some basic dental treatments-after all, why bother cleaning the teeth of people who already have one foot in the grave?
This is not the record of a good Catholic. The bishops have been handed a sword, if they dare to use it.