Are our children safe yet?

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Then head of the National Review Board, Frank Keating shared his view of the church's response to the sex abuse crisis with U.S. Catholic in 2003.

"The church needs a real thorough scrubbing," Frank Keating said last summer shortly after having been tapped to oversee the bishops' efforts to prevent and deal with clergy sex abuse. The tough-talking former Oklahoma governor and prosecutor quickly made some prelates squirm when he initially suggested that bishops who had aided, abetted, or covered up the crimes of their clergy should be held liable as accessories to those crimes.

Not used to being publicly reprimanded by their own appointees, some bishops have given Keating and his National Review Board a less-than-enthusiastic welcome in their dioceses. But despite criticism from both sides-from those who think the board is not independent and critical enough and from those who think it is too independent and critical-Keating believes that overall, through the processes and new policies now in place, the U.S. Catholic Church is making some real progress in dealing with the challenge of the sex-abuse crisis.

Having finished two terms as governor of Oklahoma in January, Keating is currently president of the American Council of Life Insurers in Washington, D.C.

What role does your National Review Board play now that the bishops' Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and their revised norms have been approved and their new Office for Child and Youth Protection is up and running?

The National Review Board exists solely for the purpose of carrying out the bishops' own mandate to themselves. And that mandate is transparency, criminal referral in every case, and zero tolerance of the kind of conduct that has brought such scandal to the faith.

We recommended that the bishops hire an executive director of the Office for Child and Youth Protection to implement their policies. Kathleen McChesney is a gifted administrator and a very focused law-enforcement Catholic. She is intolerant of crime and is intolerant of the behavior that brought this scandal to the church. Her office's primary role is to implement the charter on a day-to-day basis.

The National Review Board has three principal action agendas. First, at the request of the bishops, we have commissioned a study that will give us a clearer picture of how large the problem of clergy sexual abuse is. That study is currently being undertaken by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, and we should have a preliminary report from them sometime in midsummer.

That study will assess the size of the problem?

Yes, they're doing a thorough analysis of this problem, particularly in comparison to similarly situated institutions, both religious and secular.

The second agenda item is a separate study that looks at the causes and the larger context of the problem: What brought us to this point? What made it possible for predators to become priests and remain priests?

Where are you looking for answers to those questions?

We are using a combination of sources. Some are anecdotal, some clinical. Under the able leadership of board member Bob Bennett, dozens of interviews have been conducted. The purpose is to find the common denominator to all of this.

And what is the third agenda item?

Our third responsibility is a major national audit. We have retained Bill Gavin, a retired assistant director of the FBI, and Jim Quigley, a retired Ernst & Young CPA and managing partner, to audit each diocese in the United States.

With the bishops' directive we will go into each diocese and determine whether it has a lay review board, how well it functions, whether it is independent of the bishop, whether there is transparency-no hidden agendas or hidden settlements-and whether the policies of immediate criminal referral and zero tolerance have been put in place.

This is probably the most important part of our work: to make sure that every year, or as frequently as appropriate, we have a team of auditors go into each diocese to make sure that children are safe. They give the bishop an entrance interview, examine the state of compliance in the diocese, and then give the bishop an exit interview. The purpose of this is to make sure that the whole process is working. We expect to have probably 10 dioceses audited by June.

Last year when the Vatican revised the norms drawn up by the bishops, some critics said it watered down the original intent. What did you think?

I am confident that the Dallas charter is strong. The revisions to the norms that were approved primarily guarantee due process to priests, which I don't think is inappropriate at all. The last thing we want to do is harm the ministry of an innocent person. Most of what Rome did was to fine-tune the norms, and none of us on the board had a problem with that.

The critics worried that perhaps the revised norms provided more wiggle room for interpretation, a step away from zero tolerance.

What has occurred in moving predator priests from parish to parish and having this incidence of crime and sin has been calamitous to the church. The criminal referral piece is still an immediate requirement, notwithstanding any companion investigation by the diocese. So if I were a bishop of a diocese and there were an allegation against a priest, there would be absolutely no wiggle room in that I would have to refer this accusation to the district attorney.

There are cases where someone will call in and make the most outrageous accusation against someone simply because that person gave them a D in chemistry or something like that. Should that person be immediately removed from ministry? No, I don't think so.

A bishop needs to resolve quickly: Is a particular accusation frivolous on its face, or could there be some substance to it? But regardless of how frivolous it may appear, every allegation still has to be referred to the district attorney.

I feel I've been as aggressive and as incredulous as anyone on the board. One of the victims' representatives once said to me that he felt that some on our review board should be more aggressive considering how awful this all is and how important it is that it never recur. I said, with a smile, "Well, I'm the only member of the board who has been denounced by his own archbishop and his priests' council, so you know, I'm a full-service banker." I'm not worried about criticism.

Why did they criticize you?

It was about a comment I had made that Catholic laypeople should vote with their feet and their pocketbooks. I said that if their diocese has not handled this issue correctly, they should, if possible, go to Mass in a different diocese. I said that they can, and in some cases should, give their money to different Catholic charities independent of their dioceses.

Do you still feel that way?

Of course, absolutely. Even though Cardinal Bernard Law's newspaper attacked me for that, claiming that Keating had encouraged people to commit a mortal sin by telling them not to go to Mass. Of course, I never said that.

In any event, certainly neither I nor any of the other board members would have any qualms about voicing any concerns we might have about this process.

You have devoted a year of your life to this process. Have you felt that you've been given complete freedom and access to investigate or look into anything, to say or discuss anything?

Sure. In Bishop Wilton Gregory we have a great and compassionate and saintly leader. He is a professional executive of real skill, a diplomat, and he's fearless. Some of his fellow bishops aren't particularly happy about our function, although most understand that it must be done, and that for the sake of the safety of the faithful-and the return of the faithful to the faith-it must be done quickly and fairly, with no ambiguity and with no fear of what might be revealed to the public.

Overall I've really been pleased with the level of cooperation. The bishops are the architects of this process. We report to them, but they have certainly not intimidated or cowed us, or limited our inquiry or our passion at all.

But the fact that you were selected by and are reporting to the bishops makes some people suspicious. Do the bishops have to do more to address that accountability issue?

I think what the bishops need to do-those who have not yet done so-is to follow the example of Christ and wash some feet. They have to express total remorse, unequivocal apologies, and an utterly reformed faith.

What has occurred here in moving predator priests from parish to parish and having this incidence of crime and sin has been calamitous to the church in the United States. What I think is needed is a return to fidelity and a commitment to humility and remorse. In most cases, we're getting that from the bishops, but there should be more, and that kind of commitment must be made in a public way.

Should there have been or should there still be more resignations of bishops than we have seen thus far?

Well, I can't say that, because I'm not that familiar with every piece of unfinished business, but the more light we can shed on all of this the better.

What about Los Angeles, where it seems that the archdiocese is still setting up barriers to prevent all of the truth from being brought to light? What can your board do to promote greater transparency?

I think there are too many lawyers and too many church officials listening to too many lawyers. Openness, transparency, the light of day, the fresh breeze-these are what the church needs.

To create a privilege of priest formation-that everything a priest says to a bishop is to remain confidential-is to create an impression of obfuscation and cover-up, and that is unhealthy. But I am confident that before this is all over, the truth will come out. It might as well come out now, then we can heal earlier.

To what extent do you share the concern among some of the victims' groups that the bishops are still dragging their feet? They say they still haven't seen a real "conversion" on the part of the bishops.

I believe in most cases we have seen a real change, but I agree that in some cases we have not. And to the extent that we can emphasize the importance of transparency and have transparency become a reality in every diocese the better. After all, the Catholic Church is not Ia cosa nostra. We do not need to have things hushed up and covered up. We need admissions and full disclosure no matter what the consequences.

Do you encourage bishops to open up diocesan records-files about molesters and accusations of molestation as well as financial settlements?

It would be a mistake to publicize all data that would reveal any raw, unsubstantiated, anonymous, or even named accusations against people who are innocent. You can destroy a lot of reputations in that way, and that is not healthy. But all of these matters do need to be referred to a district attorney who needs to review them and to decide what is the right thing to do in each individual case.

If somebody makes a crank call with an anonymous and unsubstantiated accusation, I don't think that information ought to be broadcast to the four corners of the globe. It's not right to destroy someone's reputation based upon fiction. But to the extent that there are files about conduct that has been confirmed or about individuals who were sent to therapy and then returned to ministry or passed from parish to parish, those files should be publicized.

Should the survivors be released from confidentiality agreements?

I agree with that.

Groups like Voice of the Faithful believe that this problem cannot be adequately addressed without a more extensive reform of church structure and governance and greater lay involvement in decision-making.

I think that the bishops have gone a long way by creating this national board and by creating lay review boards in every diocese independent of them.

But your board and the diocesan boards are only consultative; you can't enforce any decisions.

Under church law the bishop alone is in charge of his diocese, but consultative or otherwise, if that review board has a clear directive to immediately refer all cases to district attorneys, immediately open up financial records, and to tell the bishop that zero tolerance means zero tolerance, that's pretty powerful.

The power of persuasion is the power of facts, and the boards will have to be provided with all the facts. I believe that our national board, for example, has been very tough and persuasive in the direction of truth and transparency and openness, and that's healthy for the church.

So, yes, the function is consultative. We do report to the bishops. But I think it's a very powerful consultative role.

Do you think that groups like Voice of the Faithful are helpful in resolving this crisis?

When I spoke at Regis College in Boston, I said that we can't have too much conversation. Voice of the Faithful may have some views that would differ from yours or mine, but as lay Catholics they have a right to express their opinions, and the more conversation the better. There's no reason why people can't talk and be heard.

Are you personally satisfied that children today are safe in the Catholic parish environment? What can you tell Catholic parents about their children's safety now?

The incidents of abuse were few, but they were horrific. The number of priests involved were few, but there were too many. Today virtually every diocese has zero tolerance, transparency, and criminal-referral policies in place, training and screening programs for people who deal with children, and a heightened sense of vigilance, awareness, anger, and intolerance of this behavior. Young people have never been more secure in a Catholic educational environment, but we have to prove by the structures in place and by the audits of these dioceses that that is the case.

Ronald Reagan used to say, "Trust, but verify." I think we can trust, but we also need to verify because we have been betrayed by a number of bishops. Most, if not all, the bishops today understand that and are totally committed to making sure that occurs.

How has your own faith been affected by your involvement in this process over the past year? Did you learn anything new about the church?

My relationship with priests and religious has always been wonderful and warm. The fact that predator priests like Boston's Paul Shanley and John Geoghan could wear Roman collars and be tolerated, promoted, and embraced by prelates was a stunning realization to me. I guess I have learned that even in Christ's family everyone-whether he wears a skull cap or is a person in the back pew-is human and has feet of clay.

As a faith community we need to be as aggressive as we can be to make sure that this doesn't happen again. The fact that it did happen was horrific, but my faith has been strengthened, because I think most people recognize what a blow this was to the Catholic Church and how it must never be permitted to happen again.

This article appeared in the June 2003 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 68, No. 6, pages 18-21).