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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 June, 2003, 22:16 GMT 23:16 UK
US Catholics in crisis over sex abuse

By Steve Schifferes
BBC News Online, Washington

Cardinals in Rome
The Church is struggling to deal with sexual abuse scandals worldwide
One year after US Catholic bishops agreed to openly tackle sex abuse in the Church, their policy is in disarray after the resignation of the chief lay investigator.

Frank Keating stepped down on Tuesday after a run-in with the Catholic bishops in California, who had voted not to co-operate with his study into sex abuse because, they said, it would help abusers sue the Church and violate priests' right to privacy.

It was the last straw for Mr Keating, the former Republican governor of Oklahoma, who evidently found the politics of the Church more challenging than domestic politics.

If a lay Catholic of Keating's prominence, skills and credentials can be forced out by a few thin-skinned bishops, it's hard to be optimistic about the sincerity of Church leaders
Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
But it was not the first time he had criticised the Church hierarchy.

When he took office, he upset the bishops by warning that some of them should be prosecuted and sent to jail.

And he later called on Catholics in some dioceses to withhold donations to the Church in order to force co-operation with his inquiry.

Modest goals

Mr Keating's latest remarks - in which he compared the Church to the mafia and warned that so far 61 of the 195 dioceses had not responded to his request for information about sex abuse in the Church - led to a flurry of criticism from influential bishops, who called on him to resign or face censure at the Catholic Bishops conference which meets on 19-20 June in St. Louis.

Cardinal Roger M Mahony, Archbishop of Los Angeles
Cardinal Mahoney blasted "irresponsible" comments
As well as Roger Mahony, the archbishop of Los Angeles, New York Cardinal Edward Egan, and Bishop John Myers of Newark have all criticised Mr Keating publicly.

But the danger is that Mr Keating's resignation - which was apparently also pressed by some other members of his board - will undermine the credibility of the investigation.

Justice Anne Burke of the Illinois Appellate Court, who is taking over temporarily, said that the hostile rhetoric "did not help overall to get co-operation."

Other members of the National Review board moved quickly to suppress those worries.

"This resignation will have no impact on this board," said former Clinton lawyer Robert Bennett, who is a leading candidate to succeed Mr Keating.

And another possible candidate, former Clinton staff director Leon Panetta, said that "if any thought that this controversy would delay the process, they are mistaken."

But David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, long sharply critical of the bishops, said that if a lay Catholic of Mr Keating's "prominence, skills and credentials can be forced out by a few thin-skinned bishops, it's hard to be optimistic about the sincerity of church leaders."

Democracy or hierarchy?

The row will call into question other measures that the Church has introduced to curb abuse by priests, including an audit carried out by the recently established Church's Office of Child and Youth Protection, which is run by a former FBI agent, Kathleen McChesney.

Deal Hudson, editor of the Catholic magazine Crisis, said that the "deeper concern is that the laity, who needs to be reassured that substantial reforms are occurring, may lose confidence."

The US Catholic Church has been struggling to bridge the gap between the Church hierarchy and the laity over the issue of sexual abuse.

In the most dramatic case, the Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law, was forced to resign after he admitted that he had covered up sexual abuse by priests for many years.

The Boston diocese may become effectively bankrupt on the back of lawsuits by abused victims.

Meanwhile, thousands of people across the United States are suing other dioceses for millions of dollars in damages, alleging that the Church protected priests accused of abusing children.

Even before the sex abuse scandal, the US Catholic Church has been facing declining congregations, and increasing difficulties in recruiting priests, as questions over the Church's generally strict stand on sexual morality and birth control has proved unpopular.

Now the bishops are facing a difficult balancing act in trying to reassure lay members that they are serious about abuse, while trying to avoid making the priesthood seem under siege.

But the resignation of Mr Keating has made both tasks infinitely more difficult.


SEE ALSO:
Vatican bows to public opinion
13 Dec 02  |  Americas


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