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Bishops Gear Up to Confront Controversy Over Panelist

National conference next week will address Frank Keating's status on abuse review board.

June 14, 2003|Larry B. Stammer | Times Staff Writer

As they prepare for a potentially contentious meeting next week, Roman Catholic bishops are trying to assess the public relations damage they would suffer if they were to take action against the head of their national sexual abuse review board.

In interviews Friday, bishops said that many of their number have been on the telephone to each other in the last few days, sizing up the controversy that faces them when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meets next week in St. Louis.

On Thursday, Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony sharply criticized the head of the church's National Review Board, former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating. Mahony suggested that bishops should consider removing Keating from his job because of what Mahony called "off the wall" comments that Keating had made.

Mahony was particularly incensed by Keating's comparison of some Catholic bishops to "La Cosa Nostra."

Friday, some bishops said they were hoping to avoid a direct confrontation with Keating.

"I'd like to hear him say 'I'm sorry for what I said,' but I wouldn't be ready to cast him out," Bishop Joseph L. Imesch of Joliet, Ill., said Friday.

"I would hope the governor would say, 'I misspoke myself. I didn't mean what I said,' " Imesch said. "Otherwise I think the bishops are going to say, 'Wait a minute, we don't want to get beaten over the head. We want to cooperate and we don't need to have this pushed in our face all the time.' "

"People of good will have differences of opinions. You just don't have to say it in such harsh terms," he added.

So far, however, there is no sign that Keating plans to back away from the criticisms he voiced in an interview this week with The Times. Dan Mahoney, an aide to Keating, said that the former governor stands behind his remarks.

In the interview, Keating said that most bishops were cooperating with the review board. But he said that unnamed bishops were trying to impede his work. "To act like La Cosa Nostra and hide and suppress, I think, is very unhealthy. Eventually it will all come out," he said.

Mahony on Thursday called those remarks "the last straw" and said he did not see how Keating could continue to have the support of the bishops. The cardinal made clear he will raise the issue of Keating's performance at the bishops conference.

Several other bishops agreed that Keating's future will be a major topic of discussion when the bishops convene. "There's going to be a lot of discussion about it in St. Louis," said the Most Rev. Tod Brown, bishop of Orange.

California's Catholic bishops issued a joint statement Friday saying they regretted Keating's "unfortunate comments" but reaffirming their commitment to the protection of children and youth.

Other members of the church hierarchy said that although Keating's remarks are widely viewed among the bishops as intemperate, a direct confrontation would risk a serious public relations problem for the church. For the last year, Keating has been the public face of the bishops' effort to extract the church from the sexual abuse scandal that began nearly two years ago.

The review board, which Keating heads, is responsible for determining the extent of sexual abuse in the church, going back to the 1950s, and its causes. The board also is empowered to audit all 195 dioceses in the country to make certain they are complying with safeguards put in place last year by the bishops and later approved by the Vatican.

Keating was appointed to head the review board by Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., chairman of the bishops conference.

Several bishops, including Mahony, have said they were not consulted before the appointment was made, remarks that suggest tension between Gregory and some of his fellow bishops.

While Keating heads the 13-member board, several of its members have joined in the criticism of his remarks.

When matters "degenerate to name-calling," there is "a problem," said Pamela D. Hayes, a New York attorney and member of the review board. Hayes said she is concerned that the exchanges between Keating and Mahony threaten the cooperation between the review board and the bishops. She focused her criticisms at Keating.

"Our focus here is to try and eradicate child sex abuse and make sure that children have a safe environment to practice their faith," Hayes said. "We've got people calling people mafia and La Cosa Nostra, and unfortunately that becomes the story. That's not the story ... That was a horrible choice of words ... I'm stunned."

Another board member, Justice Anne M. Burke of the Illinois Court of Appeals, said Friday that she disagreed with the suggestion that the bishops have resisted the board's work. She noted that she and two other board members, William R. Burleigh and Alice Bourke Hayes, met with about 25 bishops, canon lawyers and victim assistance officials from several dioceses last month to field questions.

The meeting "was very amicable," Burke said.


Times staff writers William Lobdell and Julie Tamaki contributed to this report.

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