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.

"We're all thrilled he was appointed," says Svea Fraser, spokeswoman for the 30,000-member Voice of the Faithful, a new national laity group that arose out of the Boston pedophilia scandal. "He's kept the pot boiling."

At first, victims groups such as SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) protested the Keating commission. David Clohessy, the national director, were outraged that the board included no SNAP members, and that the members of the commission were, in effect, lackeys for the church. The board includes Leon Panetta, the former White House chief of staff for President Clinton, and Washington lawyer Robert Bennett, who defended Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. It also includes Dr. Paul McHugh, a psychiatrist from Johns Hopkins University, who has challenged "recovered" memories of sexual abuse.

But Clohessy came around. "Our fear was that the commission would take two or three years and do nothing but research and then by the time they issued some recommendations the issue would have dropped off the radar screen," says Clohessy. "He certainly has been very straightforward, and we appreciate the fact that he's enabled members of our group to address the full commission. He hasn't taken a wait-and-see kind of stance."

And maybe most important of all: "He knows how to accumulate and use power."

Though his political life has prepared him to use power, Keating isn't just a politician. Early in his career he was an FBI agent and an assistant district attorney. In 1981, President Reagan appointed Keating as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Oklahoma, and in 1985 he was named Assistant Secretary of the Treasury. Keating also held positions in the Justice and Housing and Urban Development Departments. In Washington, Keating oversaw the operations of virtually every federal law enforcement agency, including the Secret Service, U. S. Customs Service, ATF, the U. S. Marshals Service, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and all 94 U. S. Attorneys. He was also the American representative to Interpol and was chairman of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Georgia.

He was on the short list of candidates to be George W. Bush's vice-presidential running mate in 2000, and later he was mentioned as a possible attorney general nominee. He's been called Gov. Pop-Off and The Mouth of the South because he has been openly critical of so many people.

Yet all along, Keating has been a practicing Catholic who talks devotedly of his faith. Though his grandparents were Quaker, Methodist, Presbyterian and Catholic, he attended Catholic schools from childhood through college. "My life as a Catholic has been a warm and wonderful experience," he says. "Some of the best friends I made were Augustinians and Jesuits. I come from a place that has very tiny population of Catholics, but the people were decent, hard-working and industrious exemplars," he says.

He remembers his altar boy days as "my introduction to the sublime and religious and eternal." And so, he shudders when he hears from his son-in-law that if he has a son, he won't permit him to be an altar boy. Or when he talks--as he did last weekend--with the head of a major philanthropic foundation, whose grandchildren are leaving parochial school because of the scandal. He believes an entire generation of Catholics may be lost as a result of the clerics' sins.

"This is just very, very bad," Keating says.

And that is why he is ferociously committed to fixing the problem. "The best thing in the face of all of this evil is to err on the side of toughness and not on the side of forgiveness," he says. "We'll just continue to serve until we make sure the war is over....It's worth every minute."

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