OKLAHOMA CITY — The man appointed by the U.S. bishops to head their clergy sexual-abuse review panel has advocated boycotting churches as a way of forcing bishops to do a better job policing priests.

Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma, chairman of the National Review Board on clergy sex abuse, said Catholics unhappy about the way their bishop is handling the matter might withhold contributions or refrain from attending Mass in that diocese.

“That's a time for the lay community of that diocese to say we are not writing another check, we are not going to go to Mass in this diocese,” Keating told a reporter from Boston television station WHDH on July 29. “In effect a strike, if you wish, a sit-down until things change.”

For the majority of Catholics who live too far from a church in a neighboring diocese, that would mean missing Mass altogether. The Church teaches that deliberately skipping Mass on Sundays or holy days of obligation is a mortal sin. Withholding contributions is a violation of the fifth precept of the Church, which requires Catholics to “help to provide for the needs of the Church.”

Keating denied he was counseling Catholics to miss Mass altogether, but the governor's remarks were criticized in an editorial in the Aug. 9 issue of The Pilot, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Boston, and by his own bishop.

The Oklahoma governor's “well-known, no-nonsense attitude may play well in the secular media, but there are certain things that are not admissible in the Church,” the Pilot editorial read. “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.”

The newspaper, which is published by the Archdiocese of Boston, said it hopes Keating's comments “will not pass unnoticed by those who appointed him to his current position.”

Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

Archbishop Beltran

But Archbishop Eusebius Beltran of Oklahoma City, with whom Keating has disagreed in the past, said the governor's advice was wrong.

“I find it necessary to respond to Gov. Frank Keating's statements regarding the Catholic Church,” Archbishop Beltran wrote in an Aug. 9 statement. “I was told about his comments and then I heard Gov. Keating wrongly advising Catholics how to live their faith in response to the current sexual-abuse scandal. His statements are totally inaccurate, divisive and contrary to the teachings and beliefs of our Catholic faith.”

Archbishop Beltran made it clear that although Keating chairs the review board, he is not a spokesman for the teachings and practices of the Catholic faith. The archbishop, who issued his statement while he was out of the state, said he would address the matter in an upcoming issue of his diocesan newspaper, The Sooner Catholic.

Keating said in an interview that his remarks were taken out of context. But he said that he would still counsel Catholics, if a bishop or pastor is “indifferent to the rape or abuse of children,” to “vote with their feet, to go to Mass in a different diocese.” That could take the form of attending Mass in a church not run by the diocese but by a religious order, he said. He said if he were in Boston and unhappy about the way things were going there, he would attend Mass at Boston College, a Jesuit school.

“The mission of the Church is too important to be subverted by sinning or criminal priests or bishops,” he said.

Not the First Time

It's not the first time Keating has stirred controversy involving the Mass. In February 1999, Keating, who supports the death penalty, decided to skip Mass one Sunday because he said he could not sit silently as a letter written by Archbishop Beltran was read criticizing his stand on capital punishment. The archbishop prepared the letter after Keating said Pope John Paul II was mistaken in his opposition to the death penalty.

Keating, a former FBI agent and federal prosecutor, has been seen as determined to take a no-nonsense, get-tough approach to the clerical-abuse situation. But some have wondered if his respect for Church teaching and practice hasn't taken a back-seat to his tough attitude. Soon after he was appointed to head the board in June, Keating promised to use his position to help lay people remove bishops who might have looked the other way or transferred known priest-abusers.

Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia said in response that he did not think that was part of the job description. “Whether a bishop resigns is an issue between that bishop and the Holy Father,” the cardinal said in an interview.

Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute and a spokesman for Catholics for Authentic Reform, said Keating is a “terrific governor, but out of control on this new committee.”

“He's said some scandalous things,” Ruse said. “On this issue [of clerical sex abuse] he just does-n't know what he's talking about. I mean, to advise people to commit a mortal sin? It's been gaffe after gaffe with him.”