June 21, 2003
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
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
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.