Washington • A spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is stirring debate with a series of tweets enthusiastically backing President Donald Trump and striking out at Democrats, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Sen. Kamala Harris of California.
Judy Keane, who has been director of the conference’s office of public affairs since 2016, shared the tweets and likes on her personal account, jkeanepr, which identifies her as “dir public affairs, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.. Opinions expressed are my own.”
Among the tweets that began gaining attention last week was one on May 29 that responded to Newt Gingrich criticizing former special counsel Robert Mueller. Keane’s account was set to private at some point recently so only approved followers can see her tweets.
“Lowest unemployment rate EVER, incredibly robust economy under Pres. Trump — is that also fictional? Facts are stubborn things beyond a typo. Read all accomplishments here:” she wrote. She linked to a site listing what it called the president’s “accomplishments” including: “Trump takes ‘shackles’ off ICE, which is slapping them on immigrants who thought they were safe,” “Rescinded DACA,” and “it’s a bloodbath at the State Department.”
Keane appeared to respond to a criticism of Trump by CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer on April 15: “wolfblitzer actually Wolf the Prez does know what he’s talking about re: buildings and fire safety codes. Ever hear of Trump Tower? Hotel? Casino?”
In March, she responded to a tweet about Harris promising a raise for teachers with this: “She’ll be promising all kinds of things to get elected. Then she’ll raise taxes so hardworking Americans have to pay for it all. No thanks.”
On July 1, she liked a Laura Ingraham retweet about Ocasio-Cortez that insulted the lawmaker. The tweet read: “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez deserves ‘Nobel Prize in stupidity,’ Holocaust survivor says.”
Keane did not respond to a request for comment.
“The bishops, not staff, set the conference’s federal policy positions,” Keane’s boss, James Rogers, chief communications officer, said Wednesday. “We should be mindful not to create confusion as to where the bishops might be on any particular federal policy issue. The conference is nonpartisan and does not endorse political candidates. We take this very seriously. Judy is on leave this week.”
Rogers declined to clarify if Keane was on leave because of the posts, simply referring back to his statement.
Keane came to Washington from Arizona, where she was a high-level P.R. executive for decades, according to a 2016 article by Catholic News Service, which is run by the bishops’ conference. She had served as director of media relations and strategic communications for Arizona State University, manager of public affairs and communications for Arizona’s public health-care system and public affairs and volunteer services manager at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona, CNS reported.
It was unclear how the U.S. bishops felt about their spokeswoman’s tweets. Several didn’t respond to requests for comment. Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, Va., chairman of the conference’s Communications Committee, did not respond to requests for comment about whether there is a policy for diocesan and conference staff and spokespeople about public comments related to politics and policy.
As far as the bishops’ domestic political views, the church-run research group the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate recently published its first-ever study of the 430 U.S. active and retired bishops. The 2016 survey found 47 percent of the bishops watch Fox News, while 35 percent watch CNN. As far as their general theological leanings, 42 percent said traditional, 41 percent said moderate and 17 percent said progressive.
Some who write and teach about Catholicism criticized Keane. Referring to the Ingraham retweet, Christopher J. Hale wrote on Twitter: “This is in a series of juvenile & unchristian social media conduct from the Catholic bishops’ top spokesperson. I hope she’ll do the right thing & apologize.”
Some longtime church communications professionals questioned Keane’s tone.
“Catholic communications directors in general view themselves as nonpartisan and don’t see a benefit in delving into partisan commentary,” said Helen Osman, former secretary of communication for the U.S. bishops who now directs communications for Jefferson City Bishop Shawn McKnight.
John Gehring, who formerly served as associate director for media relations at the bishops’ conference, wrote in the Catholic magazine Commonweal on Wednesday that some of Keane’s tweets go against the positions of the bishops, who in official statements have strongly criticized the White House’s cancellation of DACA, an Obama-era program that allows some people brought to the United States as children to extend their stay in order to work.
Gehring, who now works with the progressive advocacy group Faith in Public Life, wrote in his piece that Keane’s “partisan” tweets were part of a right-ward drift of the U.S. bishops.
Since the early 2000s, he wrote, “even as the bishops send letters to Congress on budget issues and have been a part of an ecumenical ‘Circle of Protection’ campaign to protect social safety nets, the conference has increasingly come to prioritize fights against contraception coverage and same-same marriage. The conference has not spoken boldly about economic inequality, an issue Pope Francis emphasizes as a life issue, since its pastoral letter Economic Justice for All — written more than three decades ago.”
Longtime watchers of the church noted this week that the conference in 2016 pushed out an editor of the Catholic News Service for tweets sympathetic to gay rights. Tony Spence had been editor in chief of the news service since 2004. He told the National Catholic Reporter he was pressured after conservatives complained about some of his tweets.