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Bishops Just Hope to Divert Attention by Sacking Keating

Maybe it should’ve been on the sports page instead of the front page -- “Church 1, State 0" -- but still, there it was, at the top of the news in my Sunday paper: “Clergy Abuse Panel’s Chief to Step Down.”

Watergate gave us the Saturday Night Massacre.

Now, Priestgate has given us the Sunday Morning Mass Massacre.

Thirty years ago, in a moment of high principle and low politics, the attorney general of the United States resigned rather than obey President Nixon’s order to fire the special Watergate prosecutor who was boring his way into the White House’s wiretapping and cover-up secrets.

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This weekend, in Priestgate, a former prosecutor was forced to resign as head of the Catholic Church panel trying to ferret out the truth about priestly sex abuse and its cover-ups.

Frank Keating, a Catholic and an ex-G-man who became governor of Oklahoma, was doing what he was supposed to do, running a panel of lay Catholics enlisted to keep an eye on how well the church was doing in stopping priests’ sexual abuse of parishioners:

He opened his mouth and spoke his mind.

Well! We certainly can’t have that.

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Keating had Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony in mind -- among other churchmen -- when he ruminated last week to my colleague Larry Stammer about the “stunning, startling” resistance to coming clean that he’d been encountering. He spoke about an “underside” of his church’s leadership, of “very clay feet,” and then said this: “To act like La Cosa Nostra and hide and suppress, I think, is very unhealthy. Eventually it will all come out.”

The only thing to come out so far is Keating. He resigned, a word which in this context evidently means “jumped or was pushed,” because Keating had said through a spokesman that he stands by what he said. So “resigned” means the bishops and the National Review Board, created by the bishops to help overhaul the church’s corporate image, wanted to dump Keating.

(Corporate language like this may sound like real English, but it isn’t. When a company says its CEO is resigning to “spend more time with his family,” what it often really means is that he’ll be getting to know his defense lawyer very, very well.)

Keating is a politician, and I’m sure he knew that you can’t use the Mafia and the Roman Catholic Church in the same sentence without making headlines. And what followed the headlines was the drippy public hand-wringing, the moralizing, the deploring. How unhelpful of Gov. Keating. How counterproductive. How ungentlemanly. And him a Catholic, too.

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Mahony, Mr. Passive-Aggressive -- sorry, Cardinal Passive-Aggressive -- went on the radio talking about being willing to accept Keating’s apology. He told The Times that Keating’s remarks were “off the wall ... the last straw.”

(Mahony’s heard something like this comparison before. Last year, a lawsuit against the archdiocese alleged not only abuse but conspiracy and cover-up, the civil spin on RICO, the federal racketeering law, drafted to go after mobsters.)

This is the same Cardinal Mahony who Los Angeles D.A. Steve Cooley had to threaten with a grand jury last year before he cried “uncle” and agreed to hand over files about priests’ alleged misconduct. Back then, Mahony said, Nixon-like: “We want every single thing out, open and dealt with, period. The last thing I want is this going on for months and months.”

Here it is 13 months later, and, also Nixon-like, the archdiocese’s lawyers are still trudging to court to keep things under lock and key, and Mahony is still trying to have it both ways. In truth, I suspect the church was delighted with the feet-of-clay-in-mouth Keating diversion. What an awful thing, comparing the True Church with a gang of criminals. What a grand opportunity not to talk about the real issues here.

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If you ask me, Keating’s shot across the bow did more for the credibility of the church than anything Mahony has said to date.

Naturally there were hard feelings about the “Cosa Nostra” remark; the Mafia must have been furious at being held up to the Catholic Church.

That’s probably not very true; there are heroic Italian priests whose lives are threatened because they stand up to the Mafia. One of them was murdered.

But was Keating right? Is there some common M.O. between any men-of-the-cloth cover-up and the way the Mafia does its dirty business?

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I cast about for some experts on organized crime to do a compare-and-contrast for me, but they’re either all on summer holiday, or they wouldn’t touch this with a 10-foot shepherd’s crook.

I can say this much: The church might have been better off if it had been a little more ruthlessly Mafioso, kicking out its fallen priests.

The Mob gets rid of troublemakers in its midst. It doesn’t shuffle them around like a game of three-card monte; it sees that they sleep with the fishes. Not the loaves and fishes.

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Did you see Cardinal Mahony on Monday afternoon, at the televised public memorial Mass for Gregory Peck?

He looked relieved -- there he was, safe in the heart of his new cathedral, beyond the hollering of protesters, the crudeness of prosecutors, the impudence of reporters. Wearing his Janet Jackson/telemarketer earpiece-mouthpiece above his brilliant vestments, he spoke of this “authentic man,” this Gregory Peck.

I heard moments of his remarks, the usual reminders of human frailties, and his citing of that theme from the Sermon on the Mount, of “those who suffer persecution for what they believe in.”

Could he have been speaking of himself? If he was, maybe it’s time to revive the growers’ old nickname for Mahony, from his days in the Central Valley supporting farm workers and immigrants’ rights: Red Roger. This time, though, the red ought to be the red of embarrassment.

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Patt Morrison’s columns appear Mondays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is patt.morrison@latimes.com.


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