A House Divided: Where Are the U.S. Bishops Heading?

As the abuse scandal continues, Catholic bishops will be judged by their worst member. Can they overcome their divisions?

As the nation's Catholic bishops headed to their twice-yearly meeting in St. Louis this week, they had two simple goals: to demonstrate they have regained their bearings after a year of scandal, and to recoup some of the gravitas they forfeited through missteps in addressing the crisis.

Yet in the span of an hour this week, two stunning events probably wrecked those plans, and in the process seemed to show the bishops as powerless as ever to halt the church's fall from grace. What's more, the second incident shows just how divided the bishops' conference now appears to be.

First, Phoenix authorities announced that Bishop Thomas O'Brien was charged in a fatal hit-and-run accident, in which O'Brien allegedly struck and killed a man with his car Saturday night. O'Brien did not even mention the accident until police traced him through his license plate Monday morning. The bishop told investigators he thought he'd hit an animal or that someone threw a rock at his windshield.

And this, just two weeks after O'Brien agreed to a plea bargain with the county prosecutor in which, in exchange for immunity from prosecution, he admitted he had assigned priests accused of sexual abuse to some of his parishes.

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With his arrest, O'Brien became the perfect metaphor for the bishops in crisis: a hit-and-run driver who leaves innocent victims in his wake and speeds on to avoid punishment. As they say in the tabloids, you can't make this stuff up.

Yet the second bombshell on Monday may have more profound implications: former Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating's defiant letter of resignation as head of the National Catholic Review Board, the group created by the bishops last June to oversee their implementation of the church's sexual abuse policy. In his letter, Keating stood by his explosive remarks last week in which he likened the hierarchy to the mafia: "My remarks...were deadly accurate. I make no apology," he wrote to Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. hierarchy.

"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."

Just as remarkable, however, was Gregory's response-because Gregory praised Keating for being forthright: "The board's contribution to resolving the sexual abuse crisis depends on its willingness to offer an honest appraisal of the steps being taken by the bishops to protect children and young people."

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