The Catholic review board's leader resigns but insists that his comparison
of some bishops to the Mafia was 'deadly accurate.'
By Larry B. Stammer
Times Staff Writer
June 17, 2003
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
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.
"The role of the board is to function independently, and yet in cooperation
with the bishops. It's going to be a challenge to walk that line," Rausch
Indeed, despite the reassurances from board members, leaders of groups
that advocate for victims of sexual abuse said Monday that with Keating's
resignation, the review board and the bishops had forfeited what credibility
David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused
by Priests, said that although a majority of board members may have urged
Keating to resign, they probably did so because of pressure from bishops.
He noted that prominent clergymen, including Mahony, New York Cardinal
Edward Egan, and Bishop John J. Myers of Newark, N.J., had all publicly criticized
"Obviously, when you have influential prelates like Mahony, Egan and Myers
openly criticizing the leading Catholic lay voice on this issue, that's where
the pressure clearly is coming from," Clohessy said.
"It's just terribly sad," Clohessy said. "With those credentials, he [Keating]
should be listened to, not shunned."