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June 21, 2003
Column #1,138

Catholic Prelates: "A Criminal Organization?"

     As Catholic Bishops gather this weekend in St. Louis, they are in such disarray over their management of the sex scandal, they tossed out a routine schedule Friday to meet quietly without press to talk about their mess.

     A year ago in Dallas, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops showed a commitment to reform by naming a National Review Board of prominent Catholic laypeople led by Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating, a former FBI agent and criminal prosecutor. While most press attention focused on priests who had molested children, two-thirds of the bishops had transferred known child molesters from one parish to another exposing more children. The Board's task was to assess the scale of the problem nationally, and to recommend needed reforms.

     Keating was outspoken from the beginning, saying "We are here because we want our faith restored. We want to excise the criminals and predators." Did that include bishops?

     Apparently. The board developed a developed an exhaustive survey form, asking probing questions about each priest who had been accused of sexual misconduct, each of his victims and most pointedly, how each diocese handled those cases. The purpose of the $250,000 audit is to determine how many priests have been accused of child sexual abuse since 1950, how the bishops handled those cases, and how much they cost the church in law suits, legal fees, settlements and counseling.

     Since hundreds of these cases were settled quietly, at up to several hundred thousand dollars per victim with a written pledge of secrecy - no one knows the how much this cancer has cost the church. One attorney for many victims told me the sum is a billion dollars.

     While some dioceses quietly complied, others such as the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, with at least 400 pending law suits, stoutly resisted. the inquiry. Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony wrote many bishops urging them to refuse to answer the audit. The bishops of California unanimously passed a resolution in May calling for the survey to be "stayed," a legal term for halting cooperation.

     Why? They claimed the surveys could violate state privacy laws and could be subpoenaed by prosecutors. Members of Keating's board met privately with California's bishops, their attorneys and researchers conducting the audit. Jane Chiles, a board member, told The New York Times that the bishop's legal objection was a "false concern" because prosecutors have subpoenaed the same sorts of information in many states.

     Meanwhile, other board members leaked the fact California was stonewalling, infuriating Mahony, whose bishops began to cooperate with the audit. Keating poured salt on the wound when he told the Los Angeles Times last week, "To act like La Cosa Nostra and hide and suppress, I think is very unhealthy." Keating was angry that Mahony and others were portraying themselves as open and transparent, while refusing to disclose information.

     Mahony called his sharp remarks "the last straw," and urged other board members to ask Keating to resign. Apparently, a majority did so.

     Keating, whose term of governor ended in January, moved to Washington to accept a the presidency of an insurance group. He had talked about serving the bishops only a year. But the ex-prosecutor did not walk quietly into the night. In a resignation letter, he charged, "Our Church is a Faith institution. A home to Christ's people. It is not a criminal enterprise.

     "It does not condone and cover up criminal activity. It does not follow a code of silence. My remarks, which some bishops found offensive, were deadly accurate. I make no apology. 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."

     Thus, his forced resignation has backfired. It will only add to the public's loss of confidence in the bishops. Keating's dismissal was like Nixon's "Saturday Night Massacre," in which the President fired Archibald Cox, Special Prosecutor of the Watergate scandal and Nixon's own Attorney General resigned in protest. That only heightened public outrage that ultimately led to the unprecedented resignation of a President.

     Adding to the sense of crisis, Phoenix Bishop Thomas O'Brien was arrested Monday in a fatal hit-and-run accident of a pedestrian, only two weeks after he narrowly avoided indictment for repeatedly protecting sexually predatory priests, an obstruction-of-justice charge. On Wednesday he resigned in disgrace and the Pope quickly accepted his resignation.

     Most dioceses have been cooperative with the survey, and even the most reluctant agreed to do so on Thursday.

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