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Spotlight Report

Lay leader vows justice

By Sacha Pfeiffer, Globe Staff, 6/16/2002

DALLAS - Calling the Catholic church's handling of clergy sex abuse ''intolerable,'' Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating, a tough-talking former prosecutor recently appointed to head a national board that will help oversee child-protection plans in dioceses nationwide, held out the possibility that top church officials could face criminal charges for their involvement in the crisis.

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In an interview yesterday, Keating, a conservative practicing Catholic, said it is ''much too premature'' to predict whether some bishops or cardinals may be charged with crimes for transferring abusive priests or protecting known abusers. But he rejected suggestions by some critics that deference to the church has stopped prosecutors from aggressively investigating the role of top-level prelates in the scandal that has badly damaged the credibility of church leadership.

''If there's a prosecution to be brought, it will be brought,'' Keating said. ''I just don't think that in today's world prosecutors, even Catholic prosecutors, are hesitant to move because we're talking about clergy. People aren't afraid to go after clergymen.

''In this climate,'' he added, ''there are probably careers to be made by going after clergymen.''

Keating also said that if particular dioceses are found to have been lax in disciplining abusive priests or implementing new child-protection guidelines approved Friday by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops parishioners should withhold contributions until the problems are remedied.

''Our responsibility as lay people is to encourage, with the power of the purse and the power of filling the pews, the prelates of our church to wake up and smell the coffee,'' he said. ''Why would you send money to an enterprise that is not living the faith? I think we have an obligation to attend Mass, but that doesn't mean we have an obligation as Catholics to support an enterprise that is indifferent to the faith.''

In selecting Keating, 58, to head the board, Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the bishops conference, chose an outspoken, pro-capital punishment layman with a considerable Catholic pedigree: He is a former altar boy and Sunday school teacher, holds degrees from several Jesuit universities, attends a weekly Bible study, and received a papal appointment as a Knight of the Holy Sepulchre in 1980.

Keating, a former FBI agent and Oklahoma Republican state legislator, described himself as a ''warm, happy and attentive Catholic'' and said he has had ''nothing but the most joyous experiences with priests.

But he also said he has been ''puzzled and stunned'' by disclosures that not only have priests sexually abused children, but that bishops and cardinals have protected known abusers. And he said he is ''disappointed that there is no mention [in the new Charter for the Protection of Children] of what to do about errant bishops.''

''From a moral standpoint, there's no question of the sinfulness of this,'' Keating said. ''But I also have a tendency to look at this from a criminal justice standpoint. If an individual has knowledge of a crime and in effect covers it up by moving an individual somewhere where he's in a position to commit other crimes, they are arguably aiders, abetters, and principals in those other crimes. And, of course, if they attempt to resist an investigation they are arguably obstructers of justice.''

Keating repeated his belief, made at a news conference Friday announcing his appointment, that the board may call for the resignation of some church officials and added that he hopes some prelates will offer to step down on their own.

He declined to identify bishops or cardinals whose handling of abuse cases, in his view, might warrant their resignations. He also would not comment on whether Cardinal Bernard F. Law, who for many American Catholics has come to symbolize the ills plaguing the church, is among those he believes should step down, saying he needs more details about Law's role in the crisis before passing judgment.

But, Keating said, ''I would hope Cardinal Law and others would look hard at themselves'' and tender their resignations, if the facts merit it.

''I have certainly not been impressed with the way he's handled things,'' he added. ''The fact that a known pedophile would be passed from child to child, I can't conceive of that. If what's been reported is true, it's horrifying.''

So far, the review board, which will oversee work of the church's newly formed Office for Child and Youth Protection, has only two additional members, attorney Robert Bennett and Illinois Appeals Court Judge Anne M. Burke. It will eventually expand to between nine and 11 members, all of whom will be Catholic, including at least one victim advocate, most likely David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, Keating said.

Keating said he plans to recommend additional members to Gregory as early as Monday, but declined to name possible candidates until he confirms their interest.

Among the board's tasks is to commission the church's first major study of the scope of clergy sexual abuse, which is to include statistics on the numbers of perpetrators and victims. It will also require every diocese to establish a system to reach out to every victim of clergy sexual abuse, no matter when the abuse occurred, and to offer them counseling and other social services agreed upon by the diocese and the victim.

Responding to charges by many victims and lay reform groups that trust in top prelates will be difficult to restore, Keating said he believes their credibility can be mended, and that church officials understand the importance of reforming their ways.

''I think the bishops get it,'' he said. ''I think most of them recognize they have made terrible mistakes ... and recognize that this is a serious challenge to the faithful Catholic community.''

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 6/16/2002.
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