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.

    Perhaps most striking was the lawsuit that the diocese of San Bernardino filed in April against the Archdiocese of Boston. The California diocese said Boston sent them a priest with a long history of abuse while claiming that the priest, Paul Shanley, was not a threat. Shanley abused children in Boston and in San Bernardino. It is a first for one diocese to sue another to cover its liability.

    In many respects the divisions are not new. The U.S. hierarchy is afflicted by many of the same ideological polarizations as the rest of the church. That split is not so much a matter of liberal versus conservative--25 years of appointments by Pope John Paul II have ensured that the hierarchy is uniformly orthodox. Rather, it is a matter of style, about whether to be open and collaborative whenever possible, or whether to be reflexively secretive and authoritarian. This is as much a flashpoint among the bishops as any matter of church teaching, and it is the crux of the present crisis.

    In the past, such internal disputes did not matter so much, and rarely were noticed by the vast majority of America's 64 million Catholics. That's not the case anymore. Every move the bishops make is scrutinized, and in the past year, the public has not liked what it's seen. Polls, angry letters to the editor, and the wrath of even staunchly conservative Catholics prove that the bishops are on very thin ice.

    Can the public--or fellow bishops--do anything about the handful of prelates who seriously mishandle abuse? It's hard to say. In the Catholic Church, each bishop is answerable only to the Pope, and that's the way the bishops like it.

    While the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has an impressive name, and Bishop Gregory a daunting title as its leader, in reality Gregory has little authority beyond the power of persuasion. Although last year the conference passed a policy stating they would "fraternally correct" bishops who mishandled abuse cases, the policy is a guideline with no real teeth as long as the conference cannot remove bad prelates from their posts.

    The hard truth is that no matter what the public and other bishops find distasteful, each bishop can run his diocese pretty much as he wishes. That makes trying to get the bishops moving in one direction as easy as herding cats. "It takes time for a 300-member organization that meets twice a year to get its act together," the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America, told USAToday after the Keating brouhaha.

    On the other hand, the public outcry has been so great that the bishops are increasingly hard-pressed to continue business as usual. Also, ever since an emergency meeting of U.S. cardinals in Rome in April 2002, the Vatican has been acting less glacially than usual in addressing particular diocese's crises. Just two days after Bishop O'Brien's hit-and-run arrest, for example, the Pope accepted the prelate's resignation--though admittedly the Vatican had refused it months before.

    For all their autonomy, the bishops have to find a way to move ahead together. The most important item on their meeting agenda should be whether they will insist on openness and transparency - the only viable option - or if not, how they will explain their decision to a skeptical flock. The fact that 135 dioceses out of 195 have complied with Keating's audit of past accusations is not good enough. For one thing, American Catholics have made it clear they will brook no hint of compromise when it comes to protecting children. Second, the hierarchy's reservoir of trust is so low that the entire conference will be judged by its worst member. If only a handful of bishops do not comply with the audit or the new abuse policies, they will all be viewed as suspect.

    In that sense, the bishops are their own worst enemies, not Frank Keating. If the focus remains on the dispute with Keating or the lay board, that will only obscure and delay the needed reforms. The bishops were seen as the villains of the scandal because of their ultimate responsibility for the priests who committed abuse. Conversely, that all-encompassing authority means they also have the power to put the church on a new path - as long as they can agree what that path should be.

    In a third development on Monday that was subsumed by the other events, the bishops' conference announced that the churchmen would spend more time in closed-door sessions this week than originally planned. While the private session was called a time for "prayerful reflection," church officials said the bishops are likely to debate their collective response to the scandal. As one church official involved in the planning said, "We have to get together and come to an agreement so that we can go forward."

    If they don't, then the crisis will continue long after the bishops leave St. Louis, and all of the bishops - whatever their individual virtues - will continue to be blamed.

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