Faith in the Bishops Put to the Fire

New York Times
June 17, 2003

At a critical turn in the crisis over the sexual abuse of children by rogue priests, the nation's Roman Catholic bishops tried to show their commitment to reform last year by naming a review board of prominent laypeople led by former Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma. A devout Catholic and experienced criminal prosecutor, Mr. Keating was hailed as a dynamic, no-nonsense choice dedicated to holding the bishops accountable in their promises of transparency and rectitude. But since Mr. Keating took on that role a year ago, his frustration grew in the face of determined resistance from some key bishops stonewalling from behind batteries of lawyers as the review board sought a detailed accounting of the hierarchy's handling of the problem.

Mr. Keating's sudden, regrettable resignation yesterday - after venting his complaints in a decidedly bad choice of words - is far more a blow to the bishops' believability than to his own. As they gather in St. Louis Thursday, the bishops remain bedeviled by the loss of confidence among laypeople still awaiting dramatic and convincing proof of reform. For that, independent board oversight of the bishops' cooperation is crucial. Mr. Keating dared to summarize resistant bishops as Mafia-like in withholding a full accounting of the problem. "To act like La Cosa Nostra and hide and suppress, I think, is very unhealthy," Mr. Keating told The Los Angeles Times.

Other board members regretted that characterization, noting that many but not all dioceses were cooperating. But one of Mr. Keating's chief antagonists wasted no time in pouncing. Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, who has spent much of the last year raising specious constitutional claims of church protection from detailed inquiry, declared that Mr. Keating "lost so much credibility" among bishops as to be ineffective. Clearly, the point the cardinal continues to miss is that it is the bishops' credibility with laypeople and the nation that is most at stake.

The remaining members of the review board vow to deliver on their mission with no less dedication and more diplomacy than Mr. Keating. And Cardinal Mahony's office now claims that disclosure arrangements are being worked out with the board. That remains to be seen and measured against the standard enunciated by Mr. Keating when he took on the job. "We are here because we want our faith restored," he said. "We want to help excise the criminals and predators."


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