Former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating's (search) expected resignation as head of a panel examining sex abuse by Roman Catholic priests was met with disappointment by church critics, while others said it wouldn't be a fatal setback to the probe.
Keating's spokesman Dan Mahoney said Sunday that on Monday or Tuesday Keating will send a resignation letter to Bishop Wilton Gregory (search), president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Mahoney said Keating had thought of resigning for several months but criticism of recent remarks he made that likened church leadership to the Mafia "hastened his decision."
Representatives of abuse victims were dismayed by the development.
"It's very disturbing that a couple of candid remarks are apparently so upsetting to the bishops," said David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (search).
Robert Bennett, a member of Keating's National Review Board and a prominent Washington lawyer, insisted the change in leadership won't stall the panel's investigations.
"There are many very strong and outspoken members on this board who are going to remain on the board and who are going to see to it that the bishops honor their commitment to protect children and the promises they made," he said.
But the Rev. Thomas Reese of America magazine, a New York-based Jesuit weekly, said Keating's departure is "a setback for the bishops" and "another stumble on the way to cleaning up the bishops' reputation."
"The governor was obviously giving some of the bishops ulcers in the short run, but in the long run, if he had stayed around, any report he issued would have absolute credibility," he said.
The resignation follows a Los Angeles Times interview in which Keating said of unnamed church officials: "To act like La Cosa Nostra and hide and suppress, I think, is very unhealthy. Eventually it will all come out."
Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony called Keating's comments "the last straw."
The cardinal said he would ask other bishops to consider calling for Keating to step down during the full hierarchy's meeting that opens Thursday in St. Louis. The review board's next scheduled meeting is July 28-29 in Chicago.
Deal Hudson, editor of Crisis, a conservative Catholic magazine in Washington, D.C., said Keating has been "a great asset as a voice of Catholic laity who want the managerial habits of the bishops to change." The next chairman, Hudson said, "needs to be someone who is capable of giving bad news to the bishops if that's what's necessary."
The review board is sponsoring a survey of the extent and patterns of abuse cases based on reports filed by all 195 U.S. dioceses. A verbal flare-up between Keating and Mahony began when the cardinal initially refused to participate in that survey unless procedures were changed.
In a Sunday statement the cardinal's office said "nothing should distract us from our most urgent goal: the protection of all our people, especially our children, from the sin and crime of sexual abuse."
Last year, Gregory appointed Keating chairman of the 13-member review board. Keating soon angered some church leaders by suggesting that parishioners who disagree with how their bishops handle abuse should withhold contributions and switch churches.
The charter doesn't specify what to do if the chairman resigns. Reese said he thought Gregory would choose the new chairman and someone acceptable to continuing board members, most likely one of those members.
Other members of the board include former congressman and White House chief of staff Leon Panetta; Anne M. Burke of Chicago, a justice on the Illinois Appellate Court; and Michael J. Bland, a victim of clergy abuse and a psychological counselor who works with fellow victims for the Chicago Archdiocese.