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Catholic Rift Over Panel Widens

Mahony calls claim that bishops are obstructing the church's sex-abuse inquiry 'the last straw' and hints at an effort to remove the lay overseer.

June 13, 2003|Larry B. Stammer | Times Staff Writer

A serious split at the senior level of the U.S. Roman Catholic Church widened Thursday as Cardinal Roger M. Mahony questioned whether bishops should remove the chief overseer they appointed last year to monitor their efforts to prevent sexual abuse by priests.

Earlier this week in an interview, the overseer, former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, sharply criticized Mahony and other bishops, comparing unnamed bishops who have opposed his efforts to "La Cosa Nostra."

Thursday, Mahony, who is one of the most influential members of the Catholic hierarchy, fired back, calling Keating's statements "off the wall."

"All I can say is, from the bishops I've listened to -- and several called me this morning -- this is the last straw," Mahony said in an interview. "To make statements such as these -- I don't know how he can continue to have the support of the bishops. I don't know how you back up from this."

The U.S. bishops created the National Review Board, which Keating heads, last June at the height of the sex abuse scandal. The idea was to repair their credibility, which many bishops thought had been badly undermined by the scandal.

The panel of prestigious lay Catholics would reassure the faithful, the bishops hoped, that the hierarchy was carrying out new policies against sexually abusive priests in good faith.

Given the panel's background, a move against Keating now could risk further damage to the church's already troubled public image. Almost from the beginning, however, the relationship between Keating and some bishops has been tense. Mahony's remarks have brought that tension to the surface.

Mahony said he intends to raise the issue of Keating's job performance next week in St. Louis when the U.S. bishops hold their semiannual meeting.

And at least one member of the review board said Thursday that Keating's remarks were threatening the panel's continued ability to do its job.

A spokesman for Keating said Thursday that he stood by his comments, which were made in an interview with The Times.

How many of the more than 350 U.S. bishops share Mahony's opposition to Keating remains unclear. Several, however, are on record as being critical of the review board. They include Archbishop Alex J. Brunett of Seattle, Bishop Donald W. Wuerl of Pittsburgh and New York's Cardinal Edward Egan, who in January refused to celebrate Mass for the National Review Board when it met in his city.

Mahony said Thursday that the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Most Rev. Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., had not consulted other bishops before appointing Keating.

"It would have been better" had Gregory asked for recommendations and set up a screening committee before making the appointment, Mahony said.

A spokesman in the U.S. bishops office in Washington said Keating serves at the pleasure of Gregory and was not appointed to a specific term.

Gregory was not available for comment Thursday.

Within the review board's own ranks, Keating's sometimes outspoken statements have caused concern.

Jane Chiles, a member of the board and the former director of the Kentucky State Catholic Conference, said that several members of the panel held a conference call Thursday to discuss Keating's recent remarks and that she and some fellow board members have "significant concerns" about them.

"It is extremely unhelpful for the heat to be turned up with this use of rhetoric at a time when we are really launching a number of very significant initiatives to assure accountability on the part of the bishops," Chiles said.

She added that some bishops also have made inflammatory comments during the past year.

Members of the review board remain committed to the work they are doing and will do whatever it takes to maintain their credibility with the bishops, as well as with the rest of the church, she said.

"I think we have to recognize that Gov. Keating is someone who has been in public office for some time. I think he has become accustomed to using sound bites -- to some extent rather effectively -- but in this case the work we are doing and the issues are way too complicated for sound bites."

"There's substantial concern that this kind of comment makes our work almost impossible," Chiles said.

But others came to Keating's defense. Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley applauded Keating's criticism of the bishops. "He apparently has been as frustrated as we have been in our efforts to secure information in possession of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles," Cooley said.

In St. Louis, David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said that, if anything, Keating has been too restrained in describing the extent of sexual abuse and the past cover-ups by bishops.

Mary Grant, western states director of the group, urged Catholics to redirect the money they would have given the Los Angeles church this week, giving it directly to charities as a protest against Mahony's behavior.

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