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Spotlight Report

  A Boston Globe Editorial  

A choice for the bishops


THE ESSENCE of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church was clerical power and secrecy. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops set up a strong lay board to pierce this veil of silence and denial. US bishops, when they meet in St. Louis next week, should not impede its work or diminish its influence. The bishops would be doing just that if they followed the suggestion of Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, to consider removing Frank Keating as board chairman.

The bishops conference established the National Review Board last June and told it to conduct a study of the causes and extent of the crisis. As of last Wednesday, according to the Los Angeles Times, 61 of the 195 US dioceses had not responded. ''To act like La Cosa Nostra and hide and suppress, I think, is very unhealthy,'' Keating told the Times.

Keating may have spoken injudiciously in comparing unnamed bishops to the Mafia, but he is understandably frustrated that some dioceses are uncooperative.

Until this week, Los Angeles and the other 12 Catholic dioceses in California were among the abstainers. Mahony, in a letter earlier this year, said he wanted a more thorough study. This week, after modifications, the California dioceses agreed to take part. That should have been the end of it.

Keating, former governor of Oklahoma, knows the value of a pithy statement to gain the bishops' attention. Mahony, archbishop since 1985, is not accustomed to having lay people tell him what to do. Friction is probably inevitable, but it is better than the lay deference and clerical silence that allowed sexual abuse to go unchecked in many dioceses for years.

Just this month, Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien, facing indictment, acknowledged he had allowed priests accused of abuse to work with children. In Kentucky, the Archdiocese of Louisville agreed to pay $25 million to 243 people alleging abuse. Lawsuits totaling far more are pending in Boston and other dioceses. The scandal could have been avoided if the bishops decades ago had acknowledged the problem and weeded out abusers.

In Los Angeles the archdiocese is being sued by 400 people claiming abuse, and the district attorney is seeking to examine its personnel files for criminal violations. Mahony is fighting back, and because of a California law protecting personnel records, he may have a better defense than a similar case lost by the Boston archdiocese. Any attempt to hide files invites suspicion of a coverup and underlines the need for an independent lay board to offer guidance that will transcend the legal problems of individual dioceses.

The US bishops were careful last June to build a superstructure of lay oversight for all dioceses. The Office for Child and Youth Protection does the day-to-day work, monitored by the Review Board. The bishops need strong lay involvement to resolve a scandal that has yet to run its course.

This story ran on page A14 of the Boston Globe on 6/16/2003.
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