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Clergy Abuse Panel's Chief to Step Down

The Catholic layman had accused some bishops of obstructing the sex scandal inquiry. A majority of the board asked him to resign.

June 15, 2003|Larry B. Stammer | Times Staff Writer

The head of the Roman Catholic Church's U.S. sexual abuse oversight panel will resign his post, his spokesman said Saturday -- an ouster brought on by controversy that began last week when he publicly compared some Catholic bishops to "La Cosa Nostra."

The resignation of former Oklahoma Gov. Frank A. Keating as head of the church's National Review Board comes after his words were denounced as "off the wall" by Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and after a majority of members of the oversight panel privately called on him to quit.

During the year in which he has headed the board, Keating -- who is a former federal prosecutor -- has been the public face of the church's effort to reassure Catholics that the bishops are serious about confronting the scandal of priests sexually abusing children.

His strong stands made him a favorite of victims' advocates, but his penchant for vivid language rankled many of the bishops he served and some members of his board.

Even before the announcement of his departure, church officials had said his leaving office would threaten to revive questions among many Catholics about whether the bishops were willing to accept independent, outside oversight of their work. That was precisely the issue the bishops had sought to lay to rest when they appointed Keating and the other 12 members of the review board a year ago.

Keating's spokesman, Dan Mahoney, said the departure would come in the next few days, before the bishops convene in St. Louis for their semiannual national conference, at which they are scheduled to review how their year-old policies against sexual abuse are working.

Mahoney said Keating continued to stand behind his remarks. "He uses strong language to make a point. He tells the truth, and apparently some people don't want to hear the truth," Mahoney said.

He conceded that the timing was "awkward" but sought to portray Keating's resignation as a previously scheduled departure after a year on the job.

A prominent advocate for victims of sexual abuse didn't believe that explanation, however.

"Oh, my heavens," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "I'm absolutely stunned that a few blunt comments from a concerned, conservative Catholic layperson could be so harshly received by America's bishops.

"I think it casts enormous doubts on the credibility of the board and the bishops. From our perspective, the board's work has barely begun."

The 13 members of the review board are all prominent lay Catholics -- successful business executives, judges, lawyers and a former White House chief of staff.

The bishops charged them with several tasks, including determining how many priests have been implicated in sexual abuse in the last several decades and auditing how the nation's 195 dioceses are implementing the church's new safeguards.

The controversy over Keating began Thursday when, in an interview published in The Times, he said that although most bishops were cooperating with the review board, others -- whom he did not name -- were resisting. He then compared some of the bishops to the mafia.

"To act like La Cosa Nostra and hide and suppress, I think, is very unhealthy. Eventually it will all come out," he said.

At another point in the interview, he criticized Mahony by name, saying that the cardinal listened more to his lawyers than to his heart and that he was wrong to resist attempts by local prosecutors to obtain some confidential church personnel records.

Those statements brought an angry rejoinder from Mahony, who called them the "last straw" in a sometimes troubled relationship between bishops and their lay overseer.

A flurry of phone calls and e-mails followed among bishops and panel members as both sought to cope with the dispute.

Several members of the board confirmed Saturday, before Keating's announcement, that, in the days since his comments became public, they had urged him to give up his post.

Jane Chiles, former director of the Kentucky State Catholic Conference and a panel member, said there had been "a good deal of discussion among board members," and "Gov. Keating will be making his own decision with regard to his continued service on the review board."

"I don't want any rush to judgment as to what his decision is," she said, but she called his statements "unhelpful."

Other board members, speaking anonymously, were more blunt.

One said that several board members had informed Keating by telephone Friday that a majority on the panel believed he should resign.

That decision was reached quickly, another board member said. "Not surprisingly, in light of everything going on, it was not that difficult," the person said.

Another panel member, former E.W. Scripps Co. board Chairman William R. Burleigh, took note of the support that Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, the chairman of the bishops' conference, has given the board in the past year.

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