The Last Straw: Quitting the Bishops’ Review Board

My son-in-law’s question hit me hard. “Now, tell me: Why would I ever want to become a Catholic?” Ryan and my daughter, Carrie, have a daughter themselves—our first grandchild—one year old on the Fourth of July. Ryan continued: “If we had a boy instead of a girl, I would not let him be an altar boy.” Another son-in-law of mine, Dan, was equally blunt. A non-Catholic, he simply declared, “I intended to raise our kids Catholic, but with this sex thing, everything is on hold.” Kelly and Dan had their first child, a girl, this summer.

How sad. And how unforgivable. No, I’m not bitter at Ryan. He’s protecting his child. And I’m not disappointed with Dan. My proselytizing will have to wait. But I am bitter at the Catholic Church—my Church—for having created a culture that made such comments possible. It’s simply incredible that this edifice of traditional morality could have looked evil in the face and turned away.

My family tradition is decidedly non-Catholic. Of my four grandparents, one was a Quaker, another a Methodist. The third, my dad’s mother, was a Presbyterian who later converted to Catholicism. Only my father’s father was Catholic from birth.

I was raised and formed in Catholic schools. The Benedictine nuns taught me in elementary school, Augustinian priests in middle and high school, and the Jesuits of Georgetown University were my college professors.

In the sixth grade, my twin brother and I practiced our Latin responses to the priest at Mass. We studied to be altar boys. Proudly, Dad bought an ad in the school yearbook with a photograph of the two of us in cassock and surplice before the altar at Monte Casino School church. I guess he couldn’t get too much of us appearing cherubic.

But it was deeper than that. Dad knew that in my life, as in his own, the first introduction to the eternal, the sublime, the wonders of a promised salvation, was as an altar boy. When the priest pronounced the words of consecration, “This is my Body,” he repeated a 2,000-year-old tradition of Catholic Christianity. Christ alive on earth. “I am with you always, even to the end of time.” The priest repeated the words of Jesus and His commitment to everlasting life for each of us who follows Him.

This was powerful medicine to a twelve-year-old. To put aside the pursuits of school, paper route, and the occasional sibling fuss with older brother Martin or twin brother Dan for a glimpse of the hereafter was life-transforming. It raised me to understand that I was special. I was one of a family within the four walls of my parents’ house. I was also one of a special family of Christ, which would embrace me forever. It made me bigger and better than I was. It forced me to look up and learn that there was more expected of life than a paycheck and vacations. If I were special to God in heaven, I’d better act like it on earth.

And that’s what’s stunning and mystifying about the sex-abuse scandal. Didn’t these men learn a thing from years in the seminary and at the knee of Christ? Didn’t they know they were supposed to be better than themselves? Didn’t they understand that they were expected to be bigger than themselves?

As an FBI agent, my service was to the shield. To fidelity. To bravery. To integrity. The Hoover credo was brutal but effective. If your partner screwed up and you didn’t report him, both of you were fired. You never embarrassed the shield. You were expected to be bigger than yourself. This same tradition followed me as a U.S. attorney. As an officer of the court, one didn’t condone or suborn perjury. Winning wasn’t everything. You were part of a larger mosaic. You had to be better than yourself.

The horrors of the sex-abuse scandal turned this value system on its head. In the Catholic tradition, sexual assault is a mortal sin. So is the rape of a child. These are offenses so extreme, so breathtakingly horrific that they’re spoken of in a whisper. In 16 years of Catholic education, I was frequently reminded that missing Mass was a sin. I was never reminded that a priest’s sexual escapade with a teenage boy was a sin. It was simply too obscene to contemplate.

How could an educational system that forms young men into priests have stumbled so badly? Apologists might argue that several thousand offending priests out of some 60,000 who have served over the last 40 years is not a dissimilar ratio to society at large. Not too bad an offender rate, they might suggest. But the argument misses the mark.

The priesthood is not simply another profession, like accounting or architecture. In those professions, ethics, morality, sin, and salvation are not central to the curriculum. The priestly vocation is a calling. Catholics believe that a priest’s duty is to nudge his flock toward salvation. He is an “alter Christus,” another Christ—a personification of Jesus on earth. The priest represents the Last Supper at Mass, when in his hands he consecrates the bread and wine. The Roman collar personifies selfless sacrifice—a marriage to God’s Church for life.

For this reason, among many others, clerical sexual abuse is a monstrous sin and a crime. It’s the very antithesis of the New Testament’s invitation to become like Christ: to live and to teach a life of piety and goodness.

How could this happen? How could it be seen and ignored? How could the faculty and staff of so many seminaries observe this wretchedness for years without alarm? What about the pastors who received these budding predators but saw and said nothing? How could school administrators, parish councils, fellow priests, and the faithful not see and scream to the highest heaven? There were thousands of molestations in scores of cities and towns across America.

And it went on for generations.

How I Got Involved

In the early summer of 2002, Bishop Wilton Gregory, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), telephoned me at the governor’s residence in Oklahoma City to ask if I would serve as chairman of the lay National Review Board that would oversee the bishops’ response to the scandal. Bishop Gregory, a convert, said that the bishops, who would meet in Dallas, intended to establish an office of child and youth protection in Washington, D.C. He indicated that the National Review Board’s function was to establish a structure to study the nature and scope of the problem and to determine the causes of the crisis. It was also thought that auditors would assure the Church family that transparency, zero tolerance, and prompt referral to criminal authorities would be the new order of the day. No more hidden or sealed settlements of abuse cases. The bishops’ charter was aggressive and wise and allowed for no half-measures. It seemed the nightmare was about to end, and the bishops were finally cleaning out the stables.

I actually thought Bishop Gregory was just seeking my advice. I never imagined that he’d want me to lead the lay effort. After we hung up, I knelt down and asked for God’s help. I would need it.

In Dallas, the bishops announced the charter and my selection as chairman of the board. One of the reporters asked me why I, as a Catholic layman, would ever agree to such an assignment. He reminded me that the Catholic laity could neither appoint nor remove bishops or priests, so what power could we realistically bring to the table? Without hesitation, I pointed out that lay Catholics could vote with their feet and with their pocketbooks. “We can go to Mass in another diocese,” I emphasized, “or give our money to a Catholic charity other than that of our diocese.” I thought it was an appropriate answer under the circumstances, and I repeated it on numerous occasions. I also insisted that bishops should be fully accountable for moving abusive priests from parish to parish.

Unfortunately, my words would later be used against me.

Creating the Board

Our board slowly took shape. In addition to me, Bishop Gregory selected laypeople from across the geographic and political spectrum. I had insisted on an all-lay board (no religious or priests), and that it be all Catholic. The Catholic Church should clean up its own mess. Bishop Gregory assented. We had Ann Burke, a highly regarded judge of the Illinois Court of Appeals; Bob Bennett, one of America’s foremost trial lawyers; Alice Hays, president of the University of San Diego; Leon Panetta, former congressman and White House chief of staff; Nick Cafardi, dean of the Duquesne University School of Law; Ray Siegfried and Bill Burleigh, both highly regarded and very successful corporate CEOs; Jane Chiles and Pam Hayes, from Kentucky and New York, respectively—both devoted to their Faith and energetic leaders; former priest, psychologist, and abuse victim Michael Bland; and Paul McHugh, distinguished Johns Hopkins psychiatrist. It was Catholic compost of rich and productive soil.

But troubling disagreements arose early. When our board met in Oklahoma City, there was some grumbling over my insistence that we meet with the victims. I felt that to begin our session with a victim’s story would steel us to the task. We would constantly be reminded of why we were there and how horrid all of this was. When I began to feel that some of my board didn’t want to hear more from a particularly unfortunate couple, I broke in and told the couple that the board hoped all would be right with their abused son. “All will be right?” his mother responded. “That’s not going to happen. Our son committed suicide.”

Here was a family ruined by a man of God. This was the ultimate blasphemy: the devil in a cassock, sneering and snuffing out the light of a vulnerable soul.

It was the last time the board formally met with victims.

Then there was the press. Several of the board protested that I had scheduled press availability after our first meeting. “Why would we talk to them?” they seemed to ask. “Because the public must know that the bishops are on the offensive,” I suggested. I thought it was vital that Catholics know what we were doing; the cavalry was on the way. There will be an end to the trauma. I’m not sure that everyone agreed, but the questions were mild and the press reported that we were doing something. The trees falling in the forest did not go unheard.

But it was the last press conference the board held while I was chairman.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Progress was made. Committees were formed. We met on a monthly basis with the superb staff of the USCCB. The meetings were scheduled in the home cities of our board members and were peppered with reports on the implementation of the Dallas charter. At the local level, diocesan review boards were formed and the zero tolerance, transparency, and criminal referral policies adopted nationally were embraced at the parish level.

The selection of Kathleen McChesney as director of the National Office of Child and Youth Protection was a significant accomplishment. The highest ranked woman ever in federal law enforcement, McChesney had been the number-three official at the FBI. A cop was my first choice, but the board initially pressed for the selection of a social worker. Fortunately, the social worker didn’t pan out, and we got the cop. She was not only the perfect messenger, but the perfect message: “Book ’em, Danno.”

Thankfully, the Church hierarchy didn’t interfere with the board’s work. In fact, it supported it. We received solid backing from our leader, Bishop Gregory.

And yet a wedge was developing. Not between the board and the bishops, but between me and several members of the board. The appearance of victims at our meetings and the presence of the press were early examples. The most disturbing was the backlash at my suggestion that Catholics vote with their feet and their pocketbooks. The Pilot, the official publication of the diocese of Boston, declared that I had encouraged Catholics to miss Mass and to commit “mortal sin.” I did not.

Swinging wildly, The Pilot also argued that I had encouraged Catholics to stop supporting the Church. Wrong again.

Incredibly, my own Oklahoma City archbishop piled on, as did the priest council of the archdiocese. Surely, The Pilot editor knew the truth. This falsehood would be laughable if it hadn’t been picked up by others and spread around. There’s a marked difference between going to Mass in another diocese if your home diocese is dragging its feet and not going to Mass at all. There’s also an important distinction between withholding money from a bishop who stiffs reform to give it to his reform-minded neighbor and not giving it at all.

Several members of the board telephoned me, not for encouragement but to express alarm that I had created this tempest. “Don’t you realize,” one said, “that your rhetoric will cause Rome to turn down the Dallas reforms?”

At one of our meetings, the goodwill between the board and the hierarchy received a blow. In a telephone conference call, a stressed Bishop Gregory asked that the board’s expenses be trimmed and that terms of members be compressed so that others might have an opportunity to serve. Fine. But what came next was the shocker. Bishop Gregory said that Edward Cardinal Egan, archbishop of New York, had uninvited the board to the annual black-tie Knights of Malta dinner, even though four of our number were members of the prestigious Catholic fraternal organization. The cardinal’s meaty ineptitude, which later created a minor public stir, clearly suggested that the National Review Board had become the skunk at the garden party. The cops could have doughnuts and coffee in the street. They weren’t allowed in the house.

Going Down

My wife and I traveled to Sintra, Portugal, and, on a particularly brilliant Sunday morning, decided to go to Mass at Fatima. Tradition holds that the Blessed Mother appeared to three shepherd children there. Her message, in the midnight horror of World War I, was a return to sacrifice and piety—certainly a needful message today in the dark aftermath of the scandal. It was a particularly low point for me. I had bumpy relationships with several board members. We’d made progress but disagreed on substance and style. The dustup with Bernard Cardinal Law’s newspaper was toxic to me, and the shin-kicking that I’d been given by my own Oklahoma City archbishop was painful. It was not a good time. Why had I signed up for this combat duty? How could God’s Church be in such a mess? My faith wasn’t tested, but I certainly was.

We stood at the front of a large crowd, behind a rope line that separated us from the high altar and dozens of priests who concelebrated the Mass. It was in Portuguese, and I understood nothing. The Gospel was read in several languages—Italian, French, Spanish, Chinese. The words of the Good News were spoken, and in the midst of my depression, I listened. Russian. Portuguese. English. The Gospel was Matthew 14. Peter stepped out of the boat and tried to walk on the surface of the waves, as Christ approached him from afar. Peter doubted and began to sink. Jesus grabbed his hand and lifted him up. “O you of little Faith, why did you doubt?”

“That’s it,” I said to my wife. “That’s the answer.” Christ is with us. No matter how bad things got, His love, His support, His presence could be counted on. Always.

I returned from Portugal refreshed and rejuvenated. I would need it.

Things were about to get very ugly.

As Low As It Gets

My vice chairman, Justice Ann Burke, sent me a letter that was purportedly written by the vicar general of Oklahoma City (a priest and the diocese’s number-two official) to his counterpart in Chicago. Chicago’s Francis Cardinal George sent it without comment to Burke, where ostensibly it would be delivered to other members of the board. Burke was clearly embarrassed. I was stunned and outraged.

The letter alleged that I didn’t attend Mass. But that wasn’t all. It also charged that I kept a mistress whom the priest-author mentioned by name. Every word was a lie. Mass is a vital part of my Sunday. And my wife of 31 years is my superior in style, talent, and virtue. Only a blind man or a fool would betray her.

I called Bob Bennett and asked whether a libel action was appropriate. Ever the realist, Bob noted that only a handful of people knew about the Oklahoma City letter. If I sued, he said, everybody would know about it and half the people would believe it. For the moment, I put it aside. Since then, Bishop Gregory has apologized twice, which showed that the libel had been widely circulated, at least at the highest levels of the bishops’ conference. While I appreciated his remorse, I was simply stunned that neither he nor the board went any further. To look at one’s feet and permit the lay chairman of your board to be so outrageously and wrongly treated—without so much as a snarl or a growl—struck me as incredible. If it weren’t so appalling, it would be funny: “Religious” figures were the architects of this nastiness!

But life on the National Review Board wasn’t always so exciting. Most of our meetings were routine, if cleaning out the Aegean stables could ever be called routine. On other occasions, the sessions took on a surreal quality, as if we were talking to people from another planet. Our conversations with representatives of religious orders are an example. The question of whether they were under the Dallas charter occupied some discussion. Then there was the issue of whether a “community” should shelter its own. Should a religious order turn a sex offender over to the police? Should it expel him from the community or should it continue to embrace him as a troubled member, though he stood accused of the rape of young boys?

One representative of the order community passed around a small pamphlet addressed to the accused, detailing ways in which such an individual might be comforted during the travails of the accusation and the prosecution process. (One suggestion was that an offending cleric take up woodworking to reduce his trauma.) Nowhere was there any mention of the victims.

I admit that victims and victims’ groups are hard to satisfy. But they should be hard to satisfy. It’s difficult to forgive and forget sexual molestation. Ruined lives. Failed marriages. Stillborn careers. Suicide. These are the detritus of the sex-abuse scandal. You can pull a nail from the wall, but the hole remains.

Progress takes time. It will be incremental. The good news includes a solid theological statement from the Holy Father, the pained mea culpa from the Dallas bishops, and some strong rhetoric from individual prelates. And that is good news.

But beneath the facade, there’s still a strong undercurrent of denial. Some say the scandal is blown out of proportion… victims exaggerate… it’s not fair to the Church… it’s an example of anti-Catholic bias… other churches are plagued by sexual abuse allegations, too… and on and on.

The problem with this is that it’s false. The American Catholic Church faces a seismic upheaval, and the Catholic lay community is angry and getting angrier. Dioceses are paying huge sums of lay money to settle cases. Recently, the attorney general of Massachusetts—himself a Catholic—writing of the Boston archdiocese, declared that the mistreatment of children there was “so massive and so prolonged that it borders on the unbelievable.” A Phoenix bishop was arrested for a hit-and-run death. The archbishop of Milwaukee resigned following revelation that he used diocesan funds to pay off a boyfriend.

The lay community is justifiably incredulous. Catholics love their Church. They believe it’s Christ’s home on earth, and they want its leadership to be servants of servants, princes in piety, paupers in lifestyle. The arrogant need not apply. Catholic laypeople want virtue and goodness and biblical truth to lead their Church. They want it to succeed in its great mission of salvation. They want their children to be safe. They’re tired of being embarrassed by a Roman collar.

And they want this scandal to end.

The End

On June 16, I resigned as chairman of the National Review Board. My reason was simple: My Church—the Church I love—doesn’t exist in an environment of grand jury subpoenas and secrecy. I feel this even more strongly today.

Los Angeles’s Roger Cardinal Mahony said that my suggestion that some in the hierarchy behaved like the “Cosa Nostra” was inappropriate and the “last straw.” It was appropriate, and it was true.

I’m gone, but the crisis and the challenges are not. The courage and virtue of St. Catherine of Siena should be today’s guide to the bishops, the board, and my fellow Catholics. St. Catherine spoke to the 14th-century Church as a laywoman, appalled by the flight from virtue she saw around her. She upbraided popes, bishops, and priests for their moral timidity and corruptions. Like many of us, she had had enough. Her words are a wake-up call to Church leaders today. Writing to Pope Gregory XI, she erupted, “You are in charge of the garden of the Holy Church. So uproot from the garden the stinking weeds full of impurity and avarice and bloated with pride. I mean the evil pastors and administrators who poison and corrupt the garden…. Use your authority, you who are in charge of us.”

St. Catherine, pray for us.


  • Frank Keating

    Frank Keating is the former chairman of the National Review Board and the former governor of Oklahoma.

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