Impolitic but Right

Baltimore Sun
Downloaded June 18, 2003

HE WAS THE PERFECT candidate to lead a national panel scrutinizing the Roman Catholic church's response to the sexual abuse of children by its priests. Frank Keating was a tough former prosecutor, a governor with a national profile, a devout Catholic unafraid to speak his mind. His resignation this week - after he publicly accused church leaders of obfuscation and likened them to the Mafia - was premature and regrettable. But it shouldn't deter the year-old citizens review panel from holding the bishops accountable in ensuring that children are safe.

Certainly the former Oklahoma governor's characterization of the Catholic bishops was impolitic. Outrageous, even. But Mr. Keating's contention that there are church leaders who continue to stonewall authorities on matters of child sexual abuse can't be overlooked. To those bishops unwilling to cooperate or looking for a legal way out, we say, shame on you. The days of hiding are long over.

Mr. Keating's public persona and professional reputation brought instant respect to the National Review Board at a time when the credibility of church leaders was zero. His forthrightness allayed fears among Catholics that the board would be less than independent. The panel is part of a multipronged effort by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to address the child sexual abuse scandal of last year. The bishops agreed to report suspected abuse (past and present) to law enforcement authorities, remove accused priests from ministry and research the extent and causes of abuse among the clergy. Many bishops have acted on that pledge; nearly two-thirds have responded to the national survey.

But when California's bishops balked at participating in the review, Mr. Keating was right to protest. Their concerns about privacy issues have since been addressed. But disagreements about the panel's oversight work won't end there. Whoever replaces Mr. Keating as chair must ensure that the panel retains its independence and vigilance, because questions about the church's role in the abuse scandal that has scarred nearly every diocese in the country will continue to foment as lawsuits are filed, church secrets are revealed and victims prevail.

The Catholic bishops, when they meet tomorrow in St. Louis, would be wise to reiterate their support for the citizens review board and press for 100 percent response on the survey. Because, as the events of the past year have shown, eventually, the truth will come out.


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