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.

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."

Contrast that with comments by Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, who called Keating's remarks "irresponsible and uninformed," and it is clear the U.S. hierarchy has some serious internal divisions.

In fact, while the bishops conference is often viewed as a monolith - "the bishops" did this, "the bishops" didn't do that--the scandal has clearly shown that the U.S. hierarchy has many divides. And the intense pressure of media scrutiny has only widened those fissures, which can be seen in the bishops' reaction to these issues:

  • The role of Voice of the Faithful (VOTF), the grass-roots lay group birthed in the wake of Boston's sex abuse scandal that has since spread around the country. Banned in some dioceses, VOTF has been welcomed by other bishops. Archbishop John Myers of Newark, N.J., for example, excoriated the group, calling them "anti-Catholic." Next door in the Paterson, N.J., diocese, Bishop Frank Rodimer welcomed the group. In Brooklyn, Bishop Thomas V. Daily, no liberal, at first banned VOTF, then lifted the ban after meeting with chapter leaders.
  • The bishops' compliance with the sexual abuse policy adopted last fall. Some bishops moved quickly to set up review boards; some have even gone beyond the official mandate. Bishop Paul Bootkoski of Metuchen, N.J., included on his diocesan review board a member of SNAP, the victims' advocacy group that has been one of the hierarchy's toughest critics. A few other bishops, meanwhile, have delayed action or thwarted the decisions of the boards they set up.
  • Willingness to embrace transparency and share information. In Baltimore, Cardinal William Keeler last year posted the names of all priests accused of misconduct in the archdiocese over the past several decades, announced how much the archdiocese had spent on settlements, and sent letters to parishioners urging them to come forward with any accusations. Keeler was praised by the public but criticized by many of his fellow bishops. "It left a bad taste in the mouth of many people," Richmond Bishop Walter Sullivan, who is known as a Vatican II liberal, told the Associated Press.
  • At times, and often during public debates, the differences have gotten unusually personal. Nebraska's Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz derided his brothers in the hierarchy as "this hapless bench of bishops." In Dallas, Bishop Joseph Galante, appointed in 2000 to succeed Bishop Charles Grahmann, publicly clashed with Grahmann last year over Galante's insistence that an accused priest be suspended from ministry. Several months ago, in a surprising admission, Galante announced he would likely leave Dallas because Grahmann refused to vacate his post.

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