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Spotlight Report

  E.J. Dionne Jr.  

After the Keating resignation


IT HAS BEEN a truly lousy week for my church.

On Wednesday Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien of Phoenix, who had already admitted to shielding abusive priests from criminal prosecutions, resigned after being arrested on charges of leaving the scene of a fatal accident.

Two days earlier, former Oklahoma governor Frank Keating resigned as the chairman of a board of lay Catholics looking into the child abuse scandal. In his resignation letter, Keating was unapologetic for having compared some Catholic bishops to La Cosa Nostra.

''To resist grand jury subpoenas, to suppress the names of offending clerics, to deny, to obfuscate, to explain away,'' he wrote to Bishop Wilton Gregory, the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, ''that is the model of a criminal organization, not my church.''

Just to bring home the material costs of this mess, the Archdiocese of Boston, facing a sharp drop in contributions, warned on Tuesday that it might have to lay off employees or cut their health benefits.

The Catholic bishops had hoped they could hold their annual meeting in St. Louis this week without formally addressing the sex abuse issue. Not a chance. At the last minute the problem that won't go away was added to the agenda. Today the bishops will devote themselves to ''prayerful reflection.'' They need it.

When Keating compared bishops to the mob, he offended even some of the hierarchy's critics. ''The bishops have a lot of problems, but they are not a bunch of Tony Sopranos,'' said Peggy Steinfels, a lay Catholic leader who gave the bishops a stern lecture at their meeting on the crisis last year. But Keating's words rang true to those who suffered abuse - who were, indeed, crime victims.

Yet it was not the bishops who forced Keating to quit. It was his fellow lay panel members who thought he should go. Herein lies the key to the current dynamic in this crisis.

Where this scandal is concerned, it is impossible to speak about a single American Catholic Church. There are nearly 200 Catholic dioceses, and bishops differed widely in how they handled the scandal. Many were tough and clear as soon as the first charges of abuse arose well over a decade ago. Others shuffled around abusive priests and covered up.

Now the lay board faces similarly diverse responses as it seeks the bishops' answers to a survey designed to document the extent of abuse and its causes. So far, a majority of bishops appear to be cooperating. But some are holding back, either because they never liked the idea of a lay review board in the first place, or because they are fearful that the survey might provide fodder for yet more lawsuits.

Keating's anger was ignited especially by resistance to the survey from Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles. Keating said Mahony should listen to his heart, not his lawyers. Earlier, New York's Cardinal Edward Egan had signaled his irritation with the board by refusing to say Mass for its members when they visited his archdiocese. Cardinal Mahony's criticisms of Keating - and his obvious pleasure at the former governor's resignation - fed the impression that Keating was forced out by the bishops.

But Keating's resignation reflected his differences with most of the board over strategy. The board is hoping that cooperative bishops will persuade the rest to join them, and it sees public fights with the hierarchy as, for the moment, counterproductive. The board holds a powerful hammer over the bishops: It will produce a report early next year, and some board members have made it clear that they will name the noncomplying bishops.

Oddly, Keating's resignation may strengthen the board's hand by making it crucial for the bishops to reaffirm its independence. Precisely because of Keating's credibility with the angriest Catholics, the bishops can ill-afford another resignation, or more charges of recalcitrance.

But beyond the internal politics is a problem of spiritual leadership. ''We're in month 18 of the most serious crisis in the history of the American Catholic Church,'' says Scott Appleby, a Notre Dame professor of religious history who, along with Steinfels, addressed the bishops last year. ''And we have yet to hear from leading figures in the church about how we should make moral, ethical, theological and spiritual sense of what happened.''

Steinfels argues that much of the responsibility for doing this falls on the lay board: ''They have to write a final report that's not just numbers and statistics, but also explains to people why this happened - and tells the truth.'' The truth may not protect bishops from lawsuits, but, as the New Testament says, it could make them free.

E.J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist.

This story ran on page A15 of the Boston Globe on 6/20/2003.
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