Keating Says He'll Be Tough on Wayward Priests as Head of Sexual Abuse Panel

The board charged with overseeing the U.S. bishops' new sex abuse policy is led by Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, a lifelong Roman Catholic and law-and-order politician who says he'll be tough on errant priests and prelates who let them serve.

The 57-year-old Keating, a term-limited Republican serving his final year in office, is also a former federal prosecutor who has disagreed with the church's opposition to the death penalty.

Keating believes his background is part of why U.S. bishops' conference president Bishop Wilton Gregory appointed him to lead the National Review Board. He says he also has a sincere desire to help the church during a dark hour.

"I was a product from the first grade through a senior in high school of Catholic education and it was a warm and wonderful experience," he said. "I never heard of a child being approached (by an abuser). It is an incomprehensible evil to me."

Under the new clerical sex abuse policy adopted by American bishops last week in Dallas, the review board is to examine how dioceses are handling abuse claims and issue an annual report. It is also to commission a study that will look at "the causes and context of the current crisis," the policy says.

Keating has already said that any bishop who knowingly transferred a predatory priest from parish to parish should resign and could even face criminal charges.

And he has criticized Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, whose archdiocese has been at the center of the national crisis. The governor said he hasn't "been very impressed" with the way Law has handled abuse claims.

Keating announced Friday that a fourth member had been appointed to the board — Michael Bland of Chicago. Keating said Bland is a psychologist, a former priest and "a recovered abuse victim of clergy."

The governor met Friday in Oklahoma City with Bland and the two previously announced members: Anne Burke, an Illinois appellate court judge; and Robert Bennett, the Washington, D.C., attorney who defended President Clinton in the Paula Jones case.

Keating expects the board will have seven additional members from various geographic locations and backgrounds. All will be practicing Catholics, he said

Keating said he and Bennett may seem like an odd couple — he is a Republican and Bennett is a Democrat — but they are not.

They are old friends, the governor said, going back to when Keating was in Washington, D.C., as a federal government official. Keating once taught Bennett's daughter in Sunday school.

"The good thing about Bob Bennett is that he will ensure that we don't run off on a pogrom," Keating said. "He is very fact oriented and fair and I think that's what we want."

Keating became known to millions of Americans as a spokesman for his state after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. He won praise for his leadership, and six years later he was considered as George W. Bush's presidential running mate — then later as an attorney general candidate.

According to his critics, the fact that he was passed over for both posts was tied to his habit of angering key constituencies with off-the-cuff remarks.

Now, as he is winding up his second term of governor, his selection to head the new board was curious even to Keating at first.

After all, he had publicly criticized the pope's position against capital punishment, suggesting the pontiff had misinterpreted the teachings of the Catholic church on the death penalty.

The week before he was named to the chair the board, Keating rejected a plea by Archbishop Eusebius Beltran and vetoed a bill to prohibit executions of the mentally retarded.

Keating also drew the ire of the NAACP by saying that growing up as a Catholic in Tulsa was like being a black in Selma, Ala., in the 1960s. And he once called Democrats "dunderheads" who "don't have religion."

But on appointing Keating last week, Gregory said his "long-standing commitment to justice and to the rights and protection of children offer great confidence to the bishops."

Keating may need a tough approach and independent streak for his board to make a strong impression — how much power it truly wields remains unclear.

Only the pope can discipline a bishop, for instance.

"A group may make recommendations about that, but they can't force anything," Auxiliary Bishop Richard Malone, of Boston, said as he was leaving the Dallas meeting.