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.

Jimmy Lago, chancellor of the Chicago Archdiocese, said church officials were not trying to stymie the process of removing priests who sexually abused children. Priests, he said, always have had the right to appeal their removal from the ministry.

"Obviously, the important thing for us is that we are not giving or taking away any rights from priests," Lago said. "Where Cardinal George is on this is he feels that the Dallas meeting made explicit reference to following canon law. Canon law allows for appeals.

"Some priests in the archdiocese have obtained civil lawyers and canonical lawyers and are proceeding with what they think are their rights. It's not like we can stop them."

Church leaders in a dozen other cities, including Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia, have said they have not discussed an appeals process for the priests they remove under the new zero-tolerance standard. Nor, they said, did they know of any priests asking to contest their cases.

But some church leaders, including Archbishop Thomas Kelly of Louisville, Ky., said they would not move to remove any priests until the Vatican approves the document voted on in Dallas. Last month, Gregory delivered the policy to the Vatican, which must approve it before it takes effect.

Keating said he was closely watching the appeals issue and how it followed canon law.

"If the reason they are appealing is because they didn't do it and they are unrighteously accused, then they are absolutely right to appeal," Keating said. "But on the other hand, if they are appealing simply because they want to delay it, they want a technicality to get their collar back, I think that's shameful."

Keating, a lifelong Catholic serving his final year as Oklahoma's governor, was selected to oversee the review board because of his penchant for speaking his mind. The question of appeals is the first of many controversies Keating expects will arise in his new assignment, which will also include the task of challenging the country's most powerful bishops who are closely tied to Rome.

"I'm very independent. I don't genuflect or apologize to the prelates. My Catholicism is my Catholicism," Keating said. "A predator priest should be prosecuted. A bishop who transfers a priest from child to child should resign and perhaps even be prosecuted. I don't have any sympathy for this kind of reckless, sinful, criminal conduct."

After the Conference of Catholic Bishops announces the members of the review board, Keating said the group would hire an office director to track new cases and to enforce the zero tolerance policy toward abuse.

"My challenge is to bring consensus out of that group. Our responsibility is to implement zero tolerance in the criminal referral policy," Keating said.

Keating, a former federal prosecutor, will lead the review board, which includes Anne Burke, an Illinois appellate court judge, Michael Bland, a Chicago psychologist and former priest who was the victim of clergy abuse, and Robert Bennett, a Washington attorney who defended President Bill Clinton in the Paula Jones case.

"Initially, they wanted non-Catholics and religious people," the Republican governor said. "We unanimously concluded that it should be a small board, it should be all Catholics, because the Catholics should clean up their own mess, and it should not include any religious. Bishop Gregory has agreed to that."

For Keating, who attends weekly mass and was educated in Catholic schools, the sexual abuse scandal in the church has been devastating. He said it has not, however, shaken his faith in the core values of the church.

"My relationship with Catholic priests was always a wonderful and mentor relationship. I never had a priest prey on me. I never heard of a priest preying on anyone-never," Keating said. "To me, this whole thing is utterly obscene."

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