July 17, 2002

BOISE, Idaho - Priests who ask the Vatican to overturn their banishment from the Catholic altar are "shameful" and violating the spirit of the zero tolerance policy for sexual abusers, said Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, the chairman of the church's review board investigating the scandal.

In an interview, Keating leveled those charges against accused priests who appeal their cases to Rome, unless they are adamant about their innocence and not merely challenging the strict policy laid down by U.S. bishops.

"To be appealing because they didn't do it is one thing," Keating said. "To be appealing because they think they are entitled to a technicality - or they think that they will be treated better in Rome - that is unacceptable. Those kind of people are the worst excuses for priests, and I hope they don't succeed."

Since the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted last month to remove from the ministry all priests who had sexually abused a child, a few clergymen have appealed their cases to the Vatican. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago first raised the notion that such priests have a right to appeal under church law, which has spurred new questions about the enforcement of the church policy.

On Monday, a spokesman for the Chicago Archdiocese, responding to Keating's remarks, said priests have always had the right to appeal their removal from the ministry.

This week, the conference of bishops plans to announce the rest of the members of the review board, which is charged with studying the root of the U.S. sexual abuse scandal. The board will be composed of Catholic faithful who are not priests or nuns, Keating said, and will also include a diverse group of well-known figures from Washington and across the country.

During his eight years in office, Keating often ran afoul of the Catholic hierarchy, particularly in his disagreement with the church's opposition to the death penalty.

Catholics in the United States and the American church have faced a cultural chasm in trying to deal with the Vatican and the church worldwide over the abuse scandal. This spring a Colombian cardinal said the scandals were the product of an American "culture of pansexuality and sexual licentiousness."

More recently, after U.S. cardinals met with Pope John Paul II in Rome, a Honduran cardinal and a Vatican-sanctioned journal attacked the U.S. media over coverage of the sex abuse scandal. But American bishops felt strongly enough about the effects of the scandal on the church and its members to appoint an independent panel.

The makeup of the review board is critical, say Catholics who are pushing for stronger reforms, because the panel of up to 13 members will ultimately enforce the policy that the majority of American bishops adopted in June during a meeting in Dallas. But the group, which has promised to be tough on abusers, also faces considerable controversy in dealing with embattled bishops.

"Some of us are on the right, some of us are on the left politically," Keating said, declining to disclose the names of the board members. "But all of us are laser-light focused on addressing how we got to this point and making sure it never happens again."

In an interview during the national governors' meeting in Idaho, Keating said he "took issue" with some priests appealing their cases to the Vatican. While Keating said he supported traditional canon law that allowed priests to appeal administration decisions of their dioceses, he said he objected to widespread appeals that could ultimately weaken the zero-tolerance policy he believes is critical to stopping a scandal that has shaken the Catholic Church.

"Here you have some of these guys, as a result of their own unbridled passions, their own evil, their own selfishness, they have jeopardized the integrity of Catholic institutions," Keating said, his voice shaking with contempt. "People ought to chase them out of town with a stick."

Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Sunday in suburban Chicago that he approved of a priest's right to appeal. Gregory appointed Keating to lead the national review board on the same day American bishops approved the policy that calls for priests to be removed from ministry for a single act of sexual abuse.

But one month after the unprecedented church meeting, some Roman Catholic bishops have grappled with enforcing the new policy. Some religious experts and victims of clergy abuse say they fear that talk of appeals may begin to weaken the policy the bishops adopted to deal with abusive priests.

In Chicago, one day after the Catholic church leaders adopted the policy, George said priests still have the right to appeal under church law. In the following days, the cardinal met privately with eight priests whom archdiocese officials had years ago suspected of sexual misconduct. He reminded them of their right to fight their removals, which five of the eight said they would do.