A bill under which corporate managers could go to prison for covering up serious dangers in products or business practices won the backing of religious leaders on Capitol Hill last week.

Individuals who fail to report major hazards to life and limb that they know of must be held personally accountable, the Rev. Michael H. Crosby of Milwaukee said at a hearing of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime.

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.

Father Crosby, a member of the Midwest Capuchin Franciscans, coordinates the corporate-responsibility 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.

Separately, Young testified that the bill "would be a significant reinforcement for the historic Judeo-Christian values of accountability 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 executor, 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 "socially destructive" 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.

[Monsanto, a large chemical firm, has manufactured chemicals later found to be carcinogenic. In addition, it has come under fire for workplace hazards some of its employes have faced.]

The bill, introduced by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), has gotten momentum from episodes such as Hooker Chemical Corp.'s dumping of more than 20,000 tons of toxic wastes into the Love Canal near Niagara Falls, N.Y.

Father Crosby, in his testimony, 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.'