Bishop Accountability
  Trying to Restore a Faith

By Frank Keating
New York Times
June 15, 2002

Dallas - Yesterday I accepted a request by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to become chairman of a special lay commission that will address the crisis of confidence — and in too many cases, a crisis of faith — in my church. I undertook this task after much thought and prayer, and only after specific criteria were established defining the powers and goals of the commission. Those goals can be easily summarized: to protect the innocent from abuse and exploitation, and to restore faith in the church and its leadership.

The charter adopted by the bishops in Dallas will prohibit any priest known to have abused a child from working in the church. This is as it must be. The church is a religious institution, but it does not operate apart from secular society. A central part of the charter rightly insists that priests who violate, or who have ever violated, the trust placed in them by victimizing young people must never again wear the clerical collar or engage in active ministry. In cases where the evidence is clear, all such offenders must be subject to criminal prosecution.

The first task of the commission will be to ensure that the policies stated in the charter are carried out, with no exceptions or excuses. One of our major duties will be to oversee the creation and operation of a national church office to enforce the provisions of the charter.

I applaud the bishops for adopting this charter, but like so many Catholic laymen, I am aware that many of these problems are self-inflicted. In far too many cases, leaders in the highest positions of trust and responsibility were passive accomplices to the violation of that trust and avoided any responsibility. To date, four bishops have resigned, and more may follow. It has been reported that as many as two-thirds of the diocesan leaders in the church have been complicit in transferring abusive priests, paying secret "hush money" settlements to victims or engaging in other activities that allowed problems to continue.

This is unacceptable for leaders of an institution that is supposed to adhere to a rigorous moral code, and which demands from its believers personal accountability and repentance for sin. A second primary goal of the commission will be to act as a watchdog and ombudsman to assure that every church leader and governing body adheres to the requirements of the charter. To that end, I envision the commission as apart from the conference of bishops, answering first of all to the laity we represent. We will coordinate with local parish and diocesan councils to ensure that the voice of the laity is heard.

I agree with Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who has said that the bishops must be held accountable for what has occurred — and what will occur — on their watch. The commission will see to that. In any case where a bishop is found to have provable knowledge of illegal activities committed by a priest under his charge, and where that bishop knowingly covered up such activities, he should also be held legally accountable as an accessory to the crimes involved. The commission is capable of calling the public's attention to bishops who do not follow the guidelines adopted yesterday, and we intend to do so.

The commission's third and most important goal might best be described as theological. We do not propose to rewrite church doctrine. But to undertake the reform of a religious institution, addressing serious violations of a religious oath, one must begin from a base of faith. My faith has taught me that guilt is a valuable emotion when it leads to atonement. Atonement is more than repentance and a plea for forgiveness; it also implies accountability.

Many leaders of my church have a great deal to be guilty about these days, and mea culpas are not enough. The public, and especially the Catholic laity, will watch what they say, but we will also watch what they do to right past wrongs and to protect the vulnerable and the innocent. The commission will insist that action follows word, that deeds are consistent with the stated intent of the charter.

It is time to apply some old-fashioned Catholic guilt to a tragic situation. Rules, policies, enforcement, even defrocking and criminal prosecution — all are essential to the protection of innocent young people and to the restoration of a beloved institution's integrity.

Frank Keating is the governor of Oklahoma.


Original material copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.