The Current Crisis

Clericalism’s Comeback

Ridding themselves of Frank Keating won't free America's Catholic hierarchs from responsibility under the law.

By 6.18.03

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Washington -- I do not know Frank Keating, the former governor of Oklahoma, who has just resigned under pressure from that panel of Catholics assembled by Church authorities to meditate upon the sexual-abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. All I do know about him is that he is a straight-shooting former FBI agent who served well as governor during a particularly grim period, the Oklahoma City bombing. He has the support of many conservatives for his public positions, and now he has the support of many straight-shooting Catholics. Apparently in reviewing the many instances of priestly pederasty in the institutions of the American Catholic Church he was astringent in his judgments. That offended many in the Catholic hierarchy. They waited for him to utter some indelicacy. When he did they put pressure on him to exit stage left.

What he said was that the bishops seemed to be continuing to cover up the exact dimensions of the pederasty scandal in the Church. He compared the bishops' behavior to that of organized crime, as in "La Cosa Nostra." That brought the blood of the archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, to a boil. Keating's candor came in a letter to the man who appointed him to head the National Review Board, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory. When his panel requested information from the bishops about an errant priest, Keating expected the kind of timely and candid response that he might have expected from the citizenry when he was in the FBI or the governor's office.

The Church, Keating protested in the letter, is "home to Christ's people." And he went on, "it is not a criminal enterprise." Wow, the last time an FBI typeublic about a national institution, it was FBI director Louis Freeh testifying before Congress about the Clinton Administration. I hope Keating thinks better of the Roman Catholic hierarchy than the Clinton Administration. The "home to Christ's people," Keating went on to say, "does not condone and cover up criminal activity. It does not follow a code of silence. My remarks, which some bishops found offensive, were deadly accurate. I make no apology."

Keating charged the bishops with resisting grand jury subpoenas and suppressing the names of "offending clerics." He wrote that "to deny, to obfuscate, to explain away: that is the model of a criminal organization, not my church." It is also the model of a corrupt bureaucracy, guilty of what students of the Catholic Church have for generations called "clericalism."

Clericalism is defined by The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church as "an excessively professional attitude of outlook, conversation, or conduct on the part of clergymen….It is also used to describe undue clerical influence in secular affairs." Keating has run head first into clericalism and it more than licentiousness is what is stalling a review of this latest New Age scandal besetting the Church. Clericalism is an impenetrable fog of false piety and esoteric proceduralism that makes it very difficult for the Catholic laity to deal with the Catholic hierarchy in any serious way. Frankly, given the hierarchy's reluctance to come clean with Keating it seems to me his review panel was doomed from the beginning. Better that the pederasts be handed over to the cops. That seems to be what is going to happen.

There is a division of church and state in this country for which we can all be grateful. By and large, Americans do not have the clergy intruding into the secular domain. We also have a tradition that no one is above the law, and if members of the clergy have been breaking the law the civil authorities are best positioned to deal with them. If the bishops believe they can snub their own National Review Board, it is only a matter of time before they find themselves answering to law enforcement officials and to the courts. They may be able to give Keating a hard time, but their bluster will not work with the courts -- a good thing that.

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About the Author
R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. is the founder and editor in chief of The American Spectator. He is the author of The Death of Liberalism, published by Thomas Nelson Inc. His previous books include the New York Times bestseller Boy Clinton: the Political Biography; The Impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton; The Liberal Crack-Up; The Conservative Crack-Up; Public Nuisances; The Future that Doesn't Work: Social Democracy's Failure in Britain; Madame Hillary: The Dark Road to the White House; The Clinton Crack-Up; and After the Hangover: The Conservatives' Road to Recovery.