A spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is stirring debate with tweets enthusiastically backing President Trump and striking out at Democrats including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.).
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, US Conference of Catholic Bishops . . . Opinions expressed are my own.”
Among the tweets that started gaining attention last week was one on May 29 that responded to Newt Gingrich’s criticism of former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Keane’s account has since been set to private, 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including: “Trump takes ‘shackles’ off ICE, which is slapping them on immigrants who thought they were safe,” “Rescinded DACA” and “it’s a bloodbath at the State Department.”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 CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer’s criticism of the president on April 15: “@wolfblitzer actually Wolff 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 the following: “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 retweet by conservative television host Laura Ingraham about Ocasio-Cortez that insulted the congresswoman:
Keane did not respond to a request for comment.
“The bishops, not staff, set the Conference’s federal policy positions,” James Rogers, the conference’s chief communications officer, said on 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 whether Keane was on leave because of the posts and referred back to his statement.
Keane came to Washington from Arizona, where she was a high-level public relations executive for decades, according to a 2016 article by the Catholic News Service, which is run by the bishops’ conference. She previously 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 as the volunteer services manager at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona, CNS reported.
It was not clear what the U.S. bishops thought about the spokeswoman’s tweets. Several did not respond to requests for comment. Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, chair 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 concerning political statements.
As far as the bishops’ political views, the church-run Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate recently published its first study of 430 active and retired American bishops. Details were thin, but the 2016 survey found that 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:
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, who directs communications for Jefferson City Bishop Shawn McKnight and formerly served as secretary of communication for the U.S. bishops.
John Gehring, who formerly served as associate director for media relations at the bishops’ conference, said Wednesday in the Catholic magazine Commonweal 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 the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, an Obama-era policy that protects undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children from deportation.
Gehring, who works with the progressive advocacy group Faith in Public Life, wrote in his piece that Keane’s “partisan” tweets were part of a rightward 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 a Catholic News Service editor for tweets sympathetic to gay rights. Tony Spence had been the editor in chief of the news service since 2004. He told the National Catholic Reporter that he was pressured after conservatives complained about his tweets, including these: