'No Apology' As Keating Leaves Panel
Head of Catholic Lay Board Compared Bishops to Mafia
By Alan Cooperman
June 17, 2003
Former Oklahoma governor Frank Keating resigned yesterday as chairman of a panel of lay Catholics examining sex abuse in the church, but stood by his recent accusation that some Roman Catholic bishops have shown a Mafia-like devotion to secrecy.
"My remarks, which some bishops found offensive, were deadly accurate. I make no apology," Keating wrote in his letter of resignation. "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."
Keating's tendency to speak plainly, and acidly, had repeatedly irritated Catholic prelates. The most recent was Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, who called for Keating's removal after the former governor and FBI agent told the Los Angeles Times last week that some bishops were acting like "La Cosa Nostra."
But lay leaders said Keating's outspokenness had also increased public confidence that his 13-member panel, known as the National Review Board, was truly independent and would not whitewash the sex abuse scandal. The board's remaining members sought yesterday to reassure Catholics that it will forge ahead with research on the scope and causes of the scandal, audit the sex abuse policies of every U.S. diocese and hold the bishops to their promises of change.
"We may be missing the sound bites of Frank Keating, but no one needs to fear that we are any less intent on achieving our goals," said Jane Chiles, a board member and former director of the Kentucky Catholic Conference.
A majority of the panel had disagreed with Keating's remarks, and some members had gently encouraged him to step aside to end the conflict with Mahony. "When there's rhetoric back and forth, it doesn't help overall to get cooperation," said Illinois Appellate Court Justice Anne M. Burke. In a teleconference yesterday that did not include Keating, board members agreed to have Burke serve as the panel's acting chairman.
But some experts on the church said Keating's resignation was nonetheless a public relations debacle that made the bishops appear thin-skinned and recalcitrant.
"If they're offended because he compared them to the Mafia, it's welcome to the real world, bishops," said David O'Brien, director of the Center for Religion, Ethics and Culture at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. "People in public life have to deal with this kind of thing all the time."
Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, accepted Keating's resignation and praised his efforts. "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 to Keating.
Keating also made clear that he holds no bitterness toward Gregory.
"Most of America's bishops are fully supportive of the Board's efforts. They have led and led well and have stood up for virtue," Keating wrote. "Your own leadership has been extraordinary and courageous. You are a model of the Good Shepherd."
Keating's resignation takes effect immediately, but no successor was named. The choice is certain to be a topic of conversation when the nation's bishops meet in St. Louis for their semi-annual convention Thursday through Saturday. But the decision is up to Gregory.
Some board members said they believe Gregory is likely to name a current member to ensure continuity. Among the leading contenders, they said, are Burke and Leon E. Panetta, the former Democratic congressman from California who served as chief of staff in the Clinton White House from 1994 to 1997.
Keating, 59, a Republican, completed two terms as Oklahoma's governor in 2002. Unable to run again because of term limits, he moved to Washington and took a job this year as president of the American Council of Life Insurers.
He had told board members that the demands of the new job were limiting the time he could spend on the all-volunteer board, and wrote in his resignation letter that he had intended to relinquish the chairmanship after one year, a period that ends this week.
But his resignation also followed a war of words with Mahony last week over the hesitation by California's bishops to provide information for a statistical study commissioned by the board. The $250,000 study is designed to determine how many priests have been accused of child sexual abuse since 1950, how those cases were handled and how much they cost the church in lawsuits, counseling and legal fees.
In an interview published in the Los Angeles Times last Thursday, Keating said Mahony had led California's bishops in an effort to derail the study. "To act like La Cosa Nostra and hide and suppress, I think, is very unhealthy. Eventually it will all come out," he said.
The cardinal responded that Keating's Mafia comparison was "the last straw." Last Friday, he said the former governor should step down voluntarily or face a vote of no confidence when the bishops gather in St. Louis.
The bishops' conference established the review board a year ago at a pivotal meeting in Dallas, in which they promised to remove permanently from ministry any priest who has sexually abused a minor.
Although the goal was to ensure the bishops' credibility, there were tensions from the start. Burke said the bishops wanted a 25-member panel that included at least one priest, but the initial lay members, including Keating, insisted on no more than 15 people, all lay Catholics.
On the day he was appointed, Keating said that some bishops probably should be prosecuted. Several weeks later, he antagonized the bishops again by suggesting that Catholics in some dioceses should withhold donations to force change.
After those remarks, some members of the board prevailed on Keating to speak out less. He did so for several months, until California's bishops voted in May to call for an immediate halt to the board's research study, saying it could help plaintiffs' attorneys and violate state privacy laws.
The California bishops said last week that they had worked out some procedures to ensure privacy and will now cooperate with the study.
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