A bill under which corporate managers could go to prison for covering up serious dangers in proucts or business practices has won backing from religious leaders on Capitol Hill.

Individuals who learn of but don't report major hazards to life and limb must be held personally accountable, the Rev. Michael H. Crosby of Milwaukee told a hearing of the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime last week.

Until such managers "are dealt with as if they were truly criminals who have abused the social trust, other business persons and the public will not regard them as criminals, and we shall have lost the social stigma and scandal that is so much a part of general deterrence," he testified.

Another phase of the hearing involved new information suggesting that about 400 cases of hepatitis -- 24 of them fatal -- resulted from delayed reporting of liver damages in users of Selacryn, an antihypertension drug made by Smith Kline & French Laboratories a division of Smith Kline Corp. of Philadelphia.

Father Crosby, a member of the Midwest Capuchin Franciscans, coordinates the corporate-responisibility efforts of 23 Midwest Roman Catholic groups. He spoke also for Patricia Young, a member of the Committee on Mission Responsibility through Investment of the United Presbyterian Church U.S.A.

Separately she testified that the bill "would be a significant reinforcement for the history Judeo-Christian values of responsibility and honesty."

Both are board members of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, which is composed of about 180 Roman Catholic orders and dioceses and 17 Protestant denominations and institutions.

The ICCR's executive director, Timothy Smith, testified that "pastors frequently hear parishioners confide that they feel morally compromised in corporations which frequently search for maximum profits despite the costs for society."

He said the bill is necessary to encourage the manager who wants to make "the moral choice" and to discourage the manager willing to make the "socially destructivec decisions.

In this regard, subcommittee chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) cited a recent speech by Monsanto Co. Chairman and President John W. Hanley. "Individual managers who knowingly and recklessly conceal clear and ongoing conditions of serious worker or consumer dangers should be recognized as the villains they are" and given "harsh legal penalties," Hanley said.

The bill, introduced by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) has 55 co-sponsors. It has gathered momentum from episodes such as Hooker Chemical Corp's dumping of more than 20,000 tons of toxic wastes into the Love Canal.

The canal became the site of a school and of the homes of more than 240 families who ultimately were forced out. The Niagara Falls, N.Y., company concealed the hazards of cancer and other grave diseases for more than 20 years.

Recently Armand Hammer, chairman of Hooker's corporate parent, Occidental Petroleum, said that the Love Canal problem "has been blown up out of context."

In his testimony, Father Crosby said "Americans must stop viewing the corporation as a moral entity in and of itself and thus liable for all wrongdoing of humans who commit the crimes rather than individual decision-makers."

Citing the gospel teaching on stepwarship of Matthew and Luke in the New Testament, he said that corporate managers ought to act as social stewards who "must always be prepared to disclose their activities and to give an account of their stewardship."

In a routine quartely report on Selacryn to the Food and Drug Administration last November, SKF reported 12 cases of liver damage. The drug law requires that unexpected adverse reactions -- which these were -- be reported one by one within 15 days after each occurs.

Saying that it was unlikely that all 12 cases had occurred within a single 15-day period, Dr. Sidney M. Wolfe, director of the Health Research Group (HRG), accused SKW of havng "buried" the cases.

Discovering the 12 cases in late December, the FDA decided to take Selacryn off the market on Jan. 15. At a meeting with SKF that day, the company unexpectedly presented the agency with 40 new cases of liver damage, including 5 fatalities.

Nine days later, HRG, which is affiliated with Ralph Nader, urged FDA Commissioner Jere Goyan to seek a criminal prosecution.