Catholic Confusion

A Cardinal Complains, a Board Chair Resigns - What Does It All Mean?

JUNE 18, New York – This week the head of the U.S. Catholic Church’s National Review Board, former Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating, resigned suddenly from his post. The National Review Board is charged with monitoring the Church’s reforms in the wake of the clergy sex abuse scandal.

Governor vs. cardinal
The drama that led to this conclusion occurred in full public view last week. Though pretty complicated (even to church insiders), it seems to have unfolded pretty much like this:

  • In May, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles had led the California bishops in resolving not to fill out a research survey on clergy sexual abuse, alarmed by the specter of lawsuits and media leaks.
  • In a June 12 L.A. Times interview Governor Keating complained that Cardinal Mahony listened “too much to his lawyer and not enough to his heart.”
  • Keating further accused unnamed bishops of acting like the mafia, “la Cosa Nostra,” with obfuscation, secrecy, and avoidance of the issues.
  • Mahony counter-attacked with press release and interview, saying Keating was “off the wall” and that he would bring up the governor’s “job performance” at the bishops’ meeting this week.
  • Other board members found Keating’s mafia reference too much and the public feud distracting from the business at hand�protecting children from harm.
  • Governor Keating, already having planned on stepping down some time this year, decided with his colleagues’ agreement that now was indeed that time.

The meaning of the brouhaha
That was the brouhaha. What does it all mean?The U.S. bishops hold their twice-yearly meeting this week, the first since they approved the Vatican revisions on the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People last November. U.S. Catholics and just about everyone else want to know if the Charter, as well as the policies and institutions it set up (including the Review Board), are making a difference.


Is Governor Keating’s departure symptomatic of a deep unwillingness on the part of the bishops to change?

A vocal governor’s part
The governor, for his part, remains unrepentant about his remarks, saying that he was “deadly accurate” about certain bishops’ unwillingness to cooperate. Yet he claims that most of the bishops have been more than willing to do so.

There are many who believe the governor got unnecessarily worked up about Cardinal Mahony’s reaction to the research survey�after all, the California bishops and the Board were able to negotiate and go ahead with the survey in the end.

Behind it all, Keating felt his place was to use his chair as a bully pulpit, that his chief means of keeping pressure on the bishops to comply with their own reforms was to keep public pressure on them. The bishop probably didn’t relish that idea, and in the end it appears he alienated them with it.

We walk by fear and not by faith?
Fellow board member (and lawyer) Robert S. Bennett noted in an interview that bishops need to “start acting like pastors and shepherds of their flock, and stop acting like risk assessment officers of insurance companies.”

It does seem like a lot of decisions are being made based on fear�fear of lawsuits, fear of bad press, fear of having one’s reputation sullied. Is that a good thing? In ancient times, bishops took on the title of “vicars of Christ,” and they are certainly called to be representatives of Christ to the community, leading the way through a crisis. In crisis Jesus consistently asked people to have faith rather than to be afraid.

Not that the bishops’ fears are unfounded. Cardinal Mahony and the bishops of California are undergoing a gauntlet of lawsuits while the statute of limitations on sexual abuse disappears completely for a year in that state. The press is watching everyone very carefully (is this unwarranted?). And let’s be honest; a handful of lawyers are making a great deal of money from the quite justified grief and hurt of many victims.

Still, Jesus didn’t say, “Don’t be afraid and have faith�except when your fears are well-founded.”

The bishops are bound to act for the common good. Yes, that does mean protecting the assets of the Church (which, we may recall, also go to offer basic pastoral services to the folks, to feed the poor, to counsel immigrants, to provide religious education for children, to support inner city Catholic schools).

But the idea (that a few seem to be clinging to still) that, behind the chancery walls, the bishops alone know the good of the Church has got to go.

A matter of reputation?
And no leader ought to confuse his personal reputation with that of the Church, despite the symbolic status of positions such as bishop, priest, sister. (One wonders if that wasn’t also at work in the alleged refusal of a certain recently resigned bishop to stop at the scene of a fatal accident.)

And well, isn’t it the role of a Christian leader to take a hit once in a while for the good of the people, to be crucified?

Of course, that’s easy for me to say not being a bishop.