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Spotlight Report

Head of US panel wants priests' fates put in local hands

By Sacha Pfeiffer, Globe Staff, 7/25/2002

In an apparent retreat from his earlier statements, Governor Frank Keating of Oklahoma, who heads a national panel charged with monitoring the Catholic Church's handling of clergy sex abuse, said yesterday that it will be the job of local review boards, not his panel, to recommend the removal of top church officials who protected abusive priests.

Keating also said that local boards may be selected with input from bishops in individual dioceses, even though some of the bishops may eventually be investigated by the same boards, prompting some victim advocates to question the independence of the process.

Last month, at a news conference in Dallas, where more than 300 bishops approved a binding national policy on clergy sex abuse, Keating said he would call for bishops who have failed to protect children to resign. In a subsequent interview with the Globe, Keating restated his belief that his board may call for the resignation of some church officials.

But yesterday Keating described as a ''misunderstanding'' the belief by some observers that his board may call for resignations of bishops and said that ''most probably and most appropriately it would be the local boards that would be dealing with each individual case and diocese.''

''The potential action for removal, for criminal prosecution, would more than likely come from local boards,'' he said.

Bishop accountability has emerged as a key issue for many American Catholics in the clergy sex abuse crisis that began in January.

Keating's comments, made during a telephone conference call yesterday afternoon with several media outlets, including the Globe, were made shortly after Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, announced the appointment of eight additional members to the advisory panel headed by Keating.

Yesterday's appointments brought the size of the panel, which was established last month to monitor and assist the bishops conference's planned Office for Child and Youth Protection, to 12 members. A final member will be named later this week.

The panel, which at Gregory's request includes only practicing lay Catholics, is made up of a cross-section of the country's political, business, and academic leaders. Among the members are Washington lawyer Robert S. Bennett; Illinois Appeals Court judge Anne M. Burke; University of San Diego president Alice Bourke Hayes; and former Clinton chief of staff Leon E. Panetta.

Keating dismissed public criticism by some victims groups that his most recent comments represent a softening of his earlier tough stance.

''We do not intend to be apologists in any sense for corrupt acts or indifference or evasion; we don't have time for that,'' Keating said, noting that he has clashed publicly with top church officials in Oklahoma over capital punishment, which he strongly supports, and criminal justice legislation.

''Look at this list of people,'' he added, referring to the additional members of the national panel named yesterday. ''No one is going to push Leon Panetta around. No one is going to push Bob Bennett around. We care deeply about the church, which has been deeply hurt here. Our American Catholic community is angry because the American Catholic church is trailing blood, and we do not intend to be anything but forthright and aggressive advocates of change and reform.''

But David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, expressed concern that despite his strong words, Keating, a conservative former prosecutor, was backing away from some of his earlier vows to hold the church hierarchy accountable.

''The commission is only going to be effective if people trust it, and people won't trust it if the chairman or the members talk tough on one day and then start backpedaling the next day,'' said Clohessy.

As for the role of local review boards, Clohessy said, ''We have to remember that local boards have existed for a decade, and none of them have been profiles in courage.'' Instead, he said, they have been made up of ''very loyal and not very assertive and independent-minded Catholics.''

Cardinal Bernard F. Law of the Boston Archdiocese has a blue-ribbon panel charged with advising him on child-protection issues, but the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, an archdiocesan spokesman, said yesterday that it was undecided whether that panel would also function as Law's local review board. A spokesman for the archdiocese could not comment last night on Keating's statements.

Meanwhile, Clohessy called the decision by the bishops conference not to appoint a SNAP member to the national board ''terribly disappointing.''

Keating said the original four members of the national board - he, Bennett, Burke, and Michael J. Bland, a clinical counselor for the Chicago Archdiocese and a former priest who was abused as a teenager by a priest - declined to select a SNAP member because they did not want members of organizations on the board. But Keating - who told the Globe last month he would probably name Clohessy to the national panel - said he has offered to meet in Oklahoma with SNAP representatives, an invitation Clohessy said the group will probably accept.

The other members of the panel, named yesterday, are Hayes, Panetta, William R. Burleigh, chairman of the board and former chief executive of the E.W. Scripps Co.; Nicholas P. Cafardi, dean of the Duquesne University Law School; Jane Chiles, former director of the Kentucky State Catholic Conference; Pamela D. Hayes, a Manhattan criminal defense lawyer; Paul R. McHugh, chairman of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine; and Ray H. Siegfried II, chairman of the board of the NORDAM Group in Tulsa.

Clohessy also described as ''troubling'' Keating's assertion that while local review boards should be independent of local bishops, bishops and dioceses ''would be called upon to help with the process'' of selecting local boards, just as the bishops conference helped select the national panel.

''They can't say they're independent boards, but then give bishops veto power,'' Clohessy said, adding that he disagreed with the decision to restrict membership on the national panel to practicing lay Catholics.

Keating said the full national board will meet Tuesday at the bishops conference headquarters in Washington, D.C., to discuss qualifications for a director of the newly established Office for Child and Youth Protection. The person named to the post should have a law enforcement background and preferably will be a former police officer or prosecutor, Keating said.

Among the board's tasks is to commission the church's first major study of the scope of clergy sexual abuse, as well as establish a system for reaching out to and counseling every victim.

Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 7/25/2002.
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