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Abuse Dispute Dismays Catholics

Rift between Mahony and head of watchdog panel and delays in full disclosure increase local unease.

June 14, 2003|Stephanie Chavez and Li Fellers | Times Staff Writers

While the intensity of opinions varied Friday over the rift between senior leaders of the U.S. Roman Catholic Church on efforts to prevent sexual abuse by priests, one sentiment appeared to bind some Los Angeles-area Catholics together: disappointment.

Disappointment that Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, the lay leader assigned to oversee the church's watchdog panel, have resorted to name-calling, degrading the seriousness of the review panel's work. Disappointment that there appeared to be roadblocks to the full disclosure of information on the sexual abuse scandal. And disappointment that a year after the U.S. bishops created a lay review panel to examine the extent of abuse by priests, antagonisms are still emerging.

"What this tells me personally is that the issue of credibility of the hierarchy is finally being put under the microscope," said Mary Jane McGraw, the California leader of a 30,000-member national lay reform group founded after the clergy abuse scandal erupted. "There must be openness and honesty so that the average layperson can make educated determinations about their church."

Earlier this week, Keating, in an interview with The Times, said that Mahony tried to derail his panel's effort to conduct a survey to determine how many priests have been implicated in abuse. In criticizing the resistance, Keating said Mahony and some other unnamed members of the hierarchy have behaved "like La Cosa Nostra," a reference to the Mafia.

Mahony responded by calling Keating's statements "off the wall" and referred to them as "the last straw." He said he intends to raise the issue of whether Keating should be removed from his job at a U.S. bishops meeting next week.

Several priests said Friday that Keating's language was inappropriate for a leader in such a sensitive post in which communication about the panel's work is of utmost importance. Keating has long had a reputation for bluntly speaking his mind.

"The opening egregious shot came from Keating," said Msgr. Clement J. Connolly, the prominent pastor of Holy Family Church in South Pasadena, and among the first Los Angeles archdiocesan priests to openly address the problem of clergy sex abuse in sermons to his congregation.

"For him to come out with provocative, excessive language damages the work of the panel insofar as communication is the critical component of everything," Connolly said.

The resulting response from Mahony and public dispute have become a "contest between the two of them" that Connolly said is an unfortunate sideshow to examining the "far more profound" sexual abuse scandal.

"We are getting caught in taking sides in a dispute between two important people and the dispute is not the issue," he said. "There are huge questions at stake here, and the egos should not distract us from them."

Father Jarlath Cunnane of St. Thomas the Apostle Church in South Los Angeles said the rhetoric between the two seemed overblown "and it seemed to be stronger language than was appropriate or necessary."

The argument stems from Mahony's and all the California bishops' initial refusal to participate in a national survey commissioned by the review board to figure out the number of priests accused or found guilty of sexual abuse dating back to the 1950s. They argued that the study was flawed and would not produce valid data.

Mahony spokesman Tod Tamberg said earlier this week that the original concerns the bishops had about the survey, which included California privacy laws, had been resolved among attorneys this week and that they all will fully participate.

But the headlines of the dispute stirred strong emotions among Catholics who have raised their voices this past year against the ongoing scandal and closely monitor developments.

About six members of a priest-abuse victims group gathered outside the downtown Los Angeles cathedral Friday urging Catholics this weekend to divert their donations from the archdiocese to other charitable groups that help children.

"Out of respect for the church, out of respect for your flock, out of respect for the children still at risk, please stop posturing, stop pointing fingers elsewhere ... Help us heal," said Mary Grant, the California chairwoman of the survivors group, in a message to Mahony.

While saying that Keating's use of a Mafia reference was harsh, McGraw said she believes that it was needed to make a significant point.

"It is necessary for the cardinal to come forward and to begin to be transparent," she said, "to stop the chatter and begin to deliver the information and the facts we so desperately need."

While controversy continued to roil among the church's hierarchy, rank-and-file Catholics either didn't know about it or had vague knowledge of the dispute. But the broader issue of clergy sexual abuse was well known and troubling for them.

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