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Abuse Panel Chief Critical to End

The Catholic review board's leader resigns but insists that his comparison of some bishops to the Mafia was 'deadly accurate.'

June 17, 2003|Larry B. Stammer | Times Staff Writer

Frank A. Keating officially resigned Monday as chairman of the Roman Catholic Church's U.S. sexual abuse review board, issuing a final, unrepentant blast in which he compared uncooperative bishops to a criminal organization.

Keating, a former Oklahoma governor and federal prosecutor, was forced to resign as chairman of the church's National Review Board because of comments he made in an interview with The Times last week in which he compared some U.S. bishops to "La Cosa Nostra." Those bishops, he said, were following the Mafia example in trying to conceal information and hide cases of wrongdoing by priests.

The comments drew sharp criticism from members of his board as well as bishops, including Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony.

But Keating did not back off in his resignation letter. "My remarks, which some bishops found offensive, were deadly accurate," he wrote to the head of the bishops conference, Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill. "I make no apology. To resist grand jury subpoenas, to suppress the names of offending clerics, to deny, to obfuscate, to explain away -- that is the model of a criminal organization, not my church."

Most of the bishops have been fully supportive of the board's efforts, he noted. But he added that the church must not "condone and cover up criminal activity" or "follow a code of silence."

"The humiliation, the horrors of the sex scandal must be a poisonous aberration, a black page in our history that cannot ever recur. It has been disastrous to the church in America," he added.

The resignation, effective this week, was immediately accepted by Gregory, who released a letter praising Keating for his enormous contribution to the church's efforts to rid itself of sexual abuse. "Because the task you took on was unprecedented and had to be carried out in an intense environment, which gives rise to strong emotions under the close observation of the media, there were bound to be moments of difficulty," Gregory wrote.

Several board members and other church authorities said privately Monday that they were relieved that Keating had resigned. But, they cautioned, the board now must quickly reassert its independence. Many of the 12 remaining members of the review board hurried to make public statements reassuring Catholics of their continued ability to oversee the church's policies to prevent sexual abuse of children.

Keating's resignation "will have no impact on this board," said Washington attorney Robert S. Bennett. "This will not set us back at all."

In the last year, he noted, the board has launched two nationwide studies on the extent and causes of child sexual abuse, has launched audits of every diocese, and has put into action a new Office of Child and Youth Protection headed by Kathleen L. McChesney, a former high-ranking FBI official.

Leon E. Panetta, a panel member and former White House chief of staff, said: "Once the dust settles from the Keating resignation, I think the board has to make very clear that we are committed -- and always have been committed -- to getting the required information."

"If anybody thought this controversy would delay the process, they're badly mistaken," Panetta said.

"Any time you flash the light of public awareness on this issue, it puts much more heat on everyone to make sure we get to the truth."

The need to make those statements, however, underlined what church observers said would now be a major dilemma for the bishops -- how to reassure lay Catholics that the hierarchy is willing to be held accountable for its actions. Demonstrating that was the reason for creating the review board a year ago.

The danger for the church now, said Deal W. Hudson, editor of the Catholic magazine Crisis, is that "regardless of the merits of the case, the message that will go out is that anyone who criticizes the bishops will be pressured to resign. The deeper concern is that the laity, who need to be assured that substantial reforms are occurring, may lose confidence in those reforms, even if they are really happening."

An early test for the board will be naming of a new leader to replace Keating. How to fill the job is expected to be a major topic of conversation when the bishops meet for their semiannual conference this week in St. Louis. Mahony and some other bishops have objected that last time around, Gregory did not consult them before naming Keating.

Anne M. Burke, a justice of the Illinois Appeals Court who has served as vice chairman of the board, will take over as interim chief. Bennett and Panetta have been mentioned as possible leaders. Bennett said, however, that he would not have the time to head the board.

For whoever is named to the job, the fine line between cooperation with the bishops and holding them accountable for any failure to live up to their promises will not be easy to maintain, said Father Thomas Rausch of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

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