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Spotlight Report

Keating's test of faith

Oklahoman talks tough as he seeks to reform church

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 9/29/2002


Governor Frank Keating of Oklahoma (left) with Bishop Joseph Galante of Dallas at a press conference after a June bishops' conference. (Globe Staff File Photo / Evan Richman)
Governor Frank Keating went to a Benedictine grade school, an Augustinian high school, and a Jesuit college. He calls himself an orthodox Catholic who prays daily, goes to Mass weekly, teaches Catholic religious education, and donates his honorariums to Catholic charities.

But when he thinks about his son-in-law, who is not Catholic, he is at a loss as to how he might persuade him to join the church he loves.

"Even if I wanted to proselytize my son-in-law, how would I do it now?" Keating asks. "How could I talk about virtue, when there is this evil, black soil?"

Keating, 58, has led a long and eventful life of public service -- as an FBI agent, a local prosecutor, a state lawmaker, a US attorney, and as a top official in the Reagan and Bush administrations. He is now wrapping up his second four-year-term as an unusually popular governor of his home state.

But his current task is by far the most personal: He is trying to help save his own church.

On Friday, for the first time since he was chosen in June by the nation's embattled Catholic bishops to head a national review board that is supposed to oversee the church's new child-protection policy, Keating will give a speech about the challenges ahead -- where his board is going, and how it plans to get there. For his first appearance, he has chosen to venture into the eye of the storm -- the Archdiocese of Boston -- with a talk at Regis College in Weston.

Last week, as he prepared for his trip to Boston, Keating spoke to the Globe at length about his first three months grappling with a sex abuse crisis that he finds so shocking that when the story erupted earlier this year in Boston he thought it was a falsehood spawned by anti-Catholic bigotry. In interviews, first at the Dutch Colonial governor's mansion overlooking an Oklahoma-shaped swimming pool, and then in his ornate office in the nearby state Capitol, Keating made it clear that he is disgusted by the conduct of the leaders of his own church.

"Cardinal Law, as all prelates who have had these agonies on their watch, should do a great deal of soul-searching and praying, because what occurred on their watch is the antithesis of morals and values and ethics, and how that could happen on the watch of a clergyman is beyond comprehension," he said.

Keating, a clean-cut, plainspoken, gregarious man who had considered becoming a priest himself, said he is particularly disturbed by the cases of the Revs. John J. Geoghan and Paul R. Shanley, two Boston priests who were accused of molesting multiple youngsters at multiple parishes.

"Did anyone go to Geoghan or Shanley ... grab him by his collar, and say ... `If I hear one more time that you have come near [a minor], I will kill you?' Did anybody ever do that? Not that I can find," he said. "You've seen the emotional and warm retirement letters to Geoghan. Didn't any of this register? Or take Shanley -- here's a guy who ... made an entire career of mocking Catholic moral teaching ... and he is given a letter complimenting his pastoral care? ... It just amazes me. I've never seen anything like it."

Keating declined to take a position on Law's future, saying he isn't quite clear on what exactly Law did or didn't do. However, he said, "I would find it hard to imagine a bishop who has participated actively in the corruption of the young by moving with knowledge and malice an evil predator from child to child could retain his office now ... If I have knowledge that a particular priest is a serial rapist, child molester, and predator, and I permit that priest to go from victim to victim, by my action or inaction ... that's pretty malicious. I can't imagine such a thing morally. Whoever did that, whoever made Geoghan and Shanley, is a serious problem enabler."

Faith is a serious matter in Oklahoma, where Keating's family moved when he was a child, and where he has spent most of his life. There is evangelical graffiti downtown -- "Jesus Saves" is spray-painted on a traffic light -- and the local newspaper, the Oklahoman, runs a prayer on each day's front page, and an advice column by Billy Graham.

The largest religious denomination in the state is Southern Baptist -- Catholics make up just 3 percent of the statewide population -- and Keating displays some of the unabashed religiosity and fervor often associated with the evangelical Protestant ethos that surrounds him. He quotes frequently from the New Testament, has led the Oklahoma state government into such projects as a "Marriage Initiative" to reduce divorce, and he attends a weekly Bible study at which he is the only Catholic. He keeps several Bibles in his drawer at work and one in his car, and on his desktop he has a book of meditational prayers.

"He knows a lot of Scripture, and he quotes Scripture because he knows Scripture and he lives according to the teachings of Jesus Christ," said Frank A. McPherson, one of the seven Protestant businessmen with whom Keating studies the Bible, using a Christian businessman's guide, every Monday afternoon.

Keating's first term was dominated by the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, but he was praised for his handling of the crisis. During his second term, he was seriously considered, but then passed over, for the jobs of vice president and attorney general in the current Bush administration. He and his wife plan to move back to Washington in January, when his term as governor expires, and he will become one of the city's top lobbyists as president and chief executive of the American Council of Life Insurers.

His most frequent references, in conversation, are to the most conservative analyses of the church crisis, including "Goodbye, Good Men," a critique of American seminaries subtitled "How Liberals Brought Corruption into the Catholic Church," by Michael S. Rose, and "The Courage To Be Catholic," by papal biographer George Weigel, who argues that "the answer to the current crisis will not be found in Catholic Lite." But he also has Garry Wills's new book, "Why I Am a Catholic," which is sharply critical of many claims of the church hierarchy.

Although he is the most prominent Catholic in Oklahoma, Keating has had several highly publicized spats with the church. The archbishop of Oklahoma City, Eusebius J. Beltran, declared in 1999 that Keating "does not speak on behalf of the church nor does he reflect her authentic teaching" on capital punishment, which Keating supports even though the pope and US bishops say execution is unnecessary in modern society. And last month, Beltran called "totally inaccurate, divisive, and contrary to the teachings and beliefs of our Catholic faith" Keating's suggestion that Catholics who are unhappy with their local bishops could protest by withholding money or attending Mass in a different diocese.

Keating is not backing down.

"We Catholic laypeople, who love our faith and are committed Catholics for life, cannot appoint or unappoint priests, and cannot appoint or unappoint bishops," he said. "What we can do is vote with our feet and our pocketbooks."

Keating says he was surprised when he was asked to head the national review board, and he still isn't quite sure why he was chosen. But he has embraced the role with enthusiasm. The board, which is packed with high-profile, strong-willed lay Catholics from around the nation, is in the final stages of recommending a staff director to oversee a new church office for the protection of children. It is also preparing to publicize the names of dioceses that are not complying with the new policy, and has begun work on two reports, one outlining ways to protect children and the other exploring causes of the scandal. Keating says that if the Vatican were to overturn the bishops' policy, he would seek to use civil law to oust abusive priests, saying, "We as a lay board are utterly intolerant of the existence of predators in the priesthood."

Some critics are concerned that Keating's tart tongue could prove to be a distraction from the work of his board. Others are concerned that Keating is being co-opted by the bishops, because in his public comments he has become steadily less inclined to criticize individual bishops. Last week he told the Globe that he will allow the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Wilton D. Gregory, to name those bishops who have failed to implement the new policy, a step he had initially planned to take himself.

"We're encouraged because he's blunt, and clearly cares about the problem, and is willing to listen to victims," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "But there seems to be some backsliding in terms of the commission's role and scope."

Keating acknowledges that criticism from the church stings. He was particularly wounded by an editorial in The Pilot, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Boston, that accused him of encouraging Catholics to commit "mortal sin" by skipping Mass. Keating says he did not encourage Catholics to skip Mass, but simply to find a Catholic church where they feel more comfortable.

"How could those who know the faith abuse those who love it, and humiliate those who are trying to save it?" he asks. "It was a real low point for me, because the issues themselves are so agonizing, and then you just hang your head in shame that you are being attacked by your own, fragged by your own troops,"

Shortly afterward, his wife took him to Fatima, Portugal, the site of a popular shrine marking the spot where three peasant children saw an apparition of Mary in 1917. While there, Keating said he sought solace from a New Testament story, from Matthew 14, in which Jesus reassures Peter, saying, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid."

"Frank has had a remarkable ability to be thick-skinned and resilient in the political arena for years, but this is much more personal, because it reaches into his faith," said state Energy Secretary Robert J. Sullivan Jr., a boyhood friend of Keating. "It's not the kind of thing where you just kind of shrug it off and go to sleep."

But Keating remains undaunted, and says he chooses to speak out because the only real power of his board is that of the bully pulpit.

"I'm the only one who has been accused of encouraging Catholics to commit mortal sin, so no one has to tell me that I don't have the courage to stand by my guts," he said.

He said he has no concerns about visiting Boston, notwithstanding his criticism of Law and the attack on him by The Pilot, which Law publishes. While here, he plans to meet privately with victims of clergy sexual abuse and possibly with some members of Voice of the Faithful. He has no plans to meet with Law or other members of the hierarchy.

"I'm on the side of the white hats," he said, "so I'm happy to come to Boston."

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 9/29/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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