In June, when the nation's Roman Catholic bishops created a fancy-sounding commission of lay people to help them wade through the priest pedophilia scandal, most people inside and outside the church thought it would be a do-nothing group unlikely to make waves. The members, after all, were handpicked by the bishops, and the commission's chairman, Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating, is a staunch conservative.

But some bishops are in for a surprise. The panel may turn out to be bigger trouble for the bishops than victims groups, district attorneys or newspaper reporters.

In an interview this week with Beliefnet, Keating said he plans to "out" any diocese that has not begun complying with the tough Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People approved by the bishops at their June meeting in Dallas. He's already drawing up a list--possibly as many as 10% of the 195 American dioceses--and he promises to get noisy and "aggressive" if those dioceses don't appoint independent review boards to deal with offender priests.

"This is as grave a threat to the faithful as anything since the Protestant Reformation," he said, adding that the pedophilia crisis is "a horror," "evil," "beyond comprehension," and "an astonishing embarrassment." In fact, he considers it a worse crisis than the Oklahoma City bombing, through which he led his state and the nation. "This is a much more long-term horror, and I'm not sure I see the light at the end of the tunnel [with the pedophilia crisis]," Keating said.

Also this week, he announced he will urge religious orders to comply with the discipline policy adopted by the bishops in Dallas. He said his group will formally ask the Conference of Major Superiors of Men to reverse its August decision to allow most abusers to continue in church work away from parishioners because, Keating says, "whatever is good for parish priests and the local bishop is good for those who teach and work with the young in religious orders." The Conference of Major Superiors represents religious orders such as the Franciscans and Dominicans, which make up about a third of the nation's 46,000 priests. The conference said the bishops' approach violated Catholic belief in redemption and ignored research indicating that some abusers can be rehabilitated.

Because it was appointed by the Bishops themselves, the 13-member review board will not be easily dismissed by the bishops as anti-Catholic or irresponsible.

One has to wonder, therefore, whether the church knew what it was getting when the bishops picked Keating. When Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, asked Keating to head the commission, Keating said he asked Gregory, "Do you know anything about me?" Keating, a conservative Republican, is widely known as an independent thinker who has had public disagreements with his state's church leadership. He says one of the first things he told Gregory was, "The devil has gotten in the door. Who let him in? How did this happen?"

Gregory wanted him anyway. And Keating proceeded to make instant waves. In response to a reporter's question in June, he said he might advocate the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, whose diocese is the epicenter of the scandal. Over the summer, he backpedaled, saying that local review boards would be the ones to recommend firing church officials.

But he also suggested that Catholics withhold donations and boycott Mass in dioceses that don't respond appropriately to the scandal. The official newspaper of the Boston Archdiocese, The Pilot, shot back with an editorial, saying "his well-known, no-nonsense attitude may play well in the secular media, but there are certain things that are not admissible in the Church. For a church-appointed leader to publicly orchestrate a kind of protest that would call for the faithful to stop contributions or, worse, to boycott Sunday Mass-in effect calling all Catholics in a diocese to commit a mortal sin-is just surreal."

This week, Keating told Beliefnet that he still "absolutely" agrees with his suggestion to withhold donations and boycott bad parishes. "If a Catholic lay person feels that his bishop is a continuing criminal enterprise...I would suggest people go to Mass in another diocese or a different parish and vote with your pocketbook and give your money to Catholic charities that are controlled by people who are upstanding. That's the only power we as lay people have."

Spokesmen for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops did not return calls seeking comment. But the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of America magazine and the nation's best-regarded bishop-watcher, says, "Maybe behind the scenes they're nervous. On the other hand, he's doing what they told him to do. And clearly, if they picked him to show they have an independent board, they sure succeeded."

The laity's response to Keating has been mixed.

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