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Catholics Split Over Abuse Panel Chief's Resignation

Some say he was too outspoken, but victims' advocates see more church stonewalling.

June 16, 2003|Richard Fausset and Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writers

American Roman Catholics on Sunday offered starkly differing reactions to former Oklahoma Gov. Frank A. Keating's announcement that he would step down as head of the U.S. sexual abuse oversight panel after publicly blasting some bishops for what he said was their failure to cooperate.

A Keating aide announced late Saturday that Keating would resign from the church's National Review Board.

While critics of the outspoken former federal prosecutor cheered, some victims' advocates said they fear it was a signal that the church is not interested in getting to the bottom of the abuse scandal.

Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine monk who is an expert on sexual abuse in the church, criticized church officials such as Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony for pressuring the former federal prosecutor to step down from the board after Keating compared uncooperative bishops to "La Cosa Nostra."

Sipe likened the situation to the "Saturday Night Massacre" during the Watergate investigation, when President Nixon fired the special prosecutor who was directing the probe of the scandal.

"Keating was speaking truth to power -- that part of the church cannot accept the truth," Sipe said. "I think it's going to boomerang just as Nixon's defense boomeranged on him."

But others, like 78-year-old San Diego churchgoer Ann Hall, said Keating's scathing quips showed he was out of touch with the church mainstream that still respects its ordained hierarchy.

"I say thanks be to the Almighty," Hall said Sunday. "We've all been very disturbed by the abuse scandal ... but to me, [Keating] is rather insensitive to his environment, somehow."

A number of church experts said Keating's departure could give the perception that bishops were unduly meddling in the work of the National Review Board, a 13-member group of prominent Catholic laypeople convened by U.S. bishops last June to catalog instances of abuse and local dioceses' efforts to deal with the problem.

Some experts also agreed that Keating fumbled the delicate task of mollifying victims and critics within the hermetic and conservative framework of the Roman Catholic Church.

Father Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit-run magazine America, praised Keating for quickly establishing his independence from church leadership. But Keating's comments, he said, "are not part of the culture of American bishops. They're always very polite and gentlemanly toward one another."

Reese said Keating's confrontational statements may have also alienated other board members -- a majority of whom reportedly called on Keating to quit. "I'm sad to see him go," Reese said. "It's too bad he couldn't control his mouth."

Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, a Maryland-based national Catholic ministry for gays, lesbians and others, also criticized Keating's "Cosa Nostra" remark.

"He probably could have gotten his point across in a more tactful way and a more sensitive way, not only to the bishops but to Italian Americans as well," DeBernardo said.

DeBernardo cautioned the bishops, however, to expect criticism from whoever succeeds Keating.

"I would hope the next person that is chosen is someone who can speak responsibly, truthfully and forcefully to the bishops to get them to listen," he said. "Otherwise, the little credibility that the bishops retain on the sexual abuse crisis will go right down the drain."

Keating, a devout Catholic, earned a reputation for blunt, off-the-cuff comments in his two terms as Oklahoma governor. He and some bishops began butting heads soon after his appointment to the review board by the Most Rev. Wilton D. Gregory, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Those tensions escalated after an interview with The Times last week in which Keating compared some unnamed bishops with Mafia members, saying they were complicating the board's work.

He also criticized Mahony for resisting prosecutors' attempts to obtain some of the church's personnel records -- criticism that was welcomed by Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley.

Cardinal Mahony lashed back, calling Keating's statements "off the wall" and questioning whether the bishops should continue supporting him.

On Saturday, Keating's aide, Dan Mahoney, said Keating will announce his resignation this week. On Sunday, Mahoney said Keating might not make the move effective until September, after the board's surveys on the extent of sexual abuse in the priesthood are further along. Mahoney said Keating was still deliberating the details Sunday with Gregory.

A spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops could not be reached for comment Sunday.

Though Keating has lost the support of some of the review board, member Ray H. Siegfried said Sunday that he would urge Keating to reconsider his decision to step down.

"Just because somebody is irritated about what Frank said is not a reason in my view to have him depart, because this is not a controversy," Siegfried said in a phone interview from his home in Tulsa, Okla.

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