Bishop Accountability

Finding Hope in My Faith

By Frank Keating
New York Times
June 19, 2003

Washington - On Monday, I resigned my volunteer position as chairman of the national review board of lay Catholics charged with enforcing the zero-tolerance charter against child sexual abuse adopted last year by America's Roman Catholic Bishops. I left, after almost exactly a year of service, for two reasons: the need to devote full time to my job, and frustration over the efforts of a small minority of church leaders to obstruct the workings of the board.

Still, I remain optimistic that the church -- my church -- will ultimately protect the innocent and hold the guilty accountable. The national review board, no matter who leads it, is an expression of the hopes of millions of American Catholics. As such, it can and must continue its work.

My optimism is based on my meetings with Catholic clergy and lay members over the past year. They understand the challenge the church faces, and they will not stand for a retreat from the truth. These are people who have come together not just to address a crisis, but to rescue their shared faith. Theirs is a mission and a movement that will not be denied.

Likewise, the bishops, as they gather for their annual meeting today in St. Louis, must make the abuse issue a central part of their agenda, as they did last year when they crafted a no-tolerance policy and created the lay board. This is a problem that took decades to emerge; it was not solved in the last 12 months, nor will it be in the next 12. If the bishops act as if it is settled and move on to other issues, they will face some very harsh questions from many of their parishioners when they return home.

Some have suggested that the board cannot succeed, that the task of cleaning up the many scandals that plague the church is a hopeless one. I do not agree. We achieved much in the past year, and in most dioceses church leaders have given their eager cooperation. The board was, and remains, a team, filled with dedicated members of the laity who will continue their work.

We have also put in place a permanent Office for the Protection of Children and Youth, headed by Kathleen McChesney, a retired F.B.I. official. That office, and the charter it will enforce, makes a clear statement: Never again.

A few opponents of the board have said we went too far, engaging in what one resistant diocesan newspaper termed a "witch hunt." Again, I do not agree. This is not about pilfering Saturday night bingo proceeds; it concerns horrific actions by a small cadre of priests who have victimized hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of children and adolescents, and defiled the institution they claimed to serve.

Sexual abuse leaves lifelong emotional scars. In the past year, I met with many victims of abuse. I heard their heartbreaking stories of damaged lives and broken trust. I pledged to them that they would have a voice, and I am convinced that they will continue to be heard, if only because most Catholics know that right is on their side.

Sadly, a few church leaders, including some in large dioceses, chose to resist and obstruct the board. When we asked valid questions, they gave us few or no answers. Where information and cooperation was called for, we received delay or an outright refusal to help.

These few leaders turned to their lawyers when they should have looked into their hearts -- and I expressed my disgust with them. I am a candid person, and that makes some people uncomfortable. So be it. Obstructing justice, excusing and concealing those who victimize innocent children: these are not the actions of holy men. They are sins -- and they are crimes. God may hold them accountable in the next world, but we will certainly hold them accountable in this one.

Those who have sought to block the board are few, and I am convinced they will remain ineffective. From Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, to the many parish priests and members of the laity who wrote or called me, I am grateful -- for their support, but most of all grateful that they understand how vital it is to restore trust in our church.

That work continues. With God's help, it will succeed in cleansing the church of a vast stain.


Frank Keating, former governor of Oklahoma, is president of the American Council of Life Insurers.


Original material copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.