A Cardinal Offense: After a Year of Controversy over His Handling of Sex-Abuse Cases, Bernard Law Quit. How It Happened. What It Means

By Adler, Jerry | Newsweek, December 23, 2002 | Go to article overview

A Cardinal Offense: After a Year of Controversy over His Handling of Sex-Abuse Cases, Bernard Law Quit. How It Happened. What It Means


Adler, Jerry, Newsweek


Byline: Jerry Adler

It began in the basement of a church in Wellesley, Mass., where 25 parishioners gathered one evening last January to discuss the sex-abuse scandal whose ghastly outlines were just beginning to emerge in the newspapers and courtrooms. The meeting was called by Dr. Jim Muller, a long-time parishioner at St. John the Evangelist, a cardiologist and a founder, in 1980, of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. Within months the little band, calling itself Voice of the Faithful, numbered in the thousands, all across the country and overseas, and Muller was devoting most of his free time to it. His wife, Kathleen, who had encouraged him at first, grew concerned.

"Jim, this is crazy!" she exclaimed one evening.

"But you told me I should try to change the church," he responded.

"Jim," she said, "I meant St. John's Church in Wellesley, not the Roman Catholic Church!"

Of course not: that would be heresy. For virtually all of its history, the church has been ruled only from above. As recently as April, the Vatican refused to allow Boston's embattled Cardinal Bernard Law to resign--in part, one high-ranking cardinal admitted, because it didn't want to appear to be giving in to lawsuits, pressure groups and the despised American media. So last week, when Rome reversed itself and accepted Law's resignation, tendered with pleas for forgiveness from "all those who have suffered from my shortcomings and mistakes," the reaction among many Boston Catholics was a kind of stunned awe. "It feels to me like one of those pivotal moments in the history of the church," a suburban priest exclaimed, comparing the occasion to the Protestant Reformation and the Second Vatican Council. "The situation is so explosive," said Stephen J. Pope, chair of the theology department of Boston College, "that there is really no historical parallel or protocol within the church."

Yet there was no jubilation, even in the newsroom of The Boston Globe, which had uncovered some of the most damning evidence of Law's willingness to overlook assaults on children by his priests. "It's pretty somber," said Walter Robinson, who headed the paper's investigation. "This is one of those stories that doesn't call for a high-five." Law's resignation was "very sad, and very necessary," said the Rev. Robert Bullock, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows Church in suburban Sharon, who had been one of the leaders among priests in calling for the resignation. Many victims, like Dan Kiley, who was abused by a Massachusetts priest 40 years ago, found a kind of bittersweet vindication in Law's resignation, and expressed hope that the wounds, both personal and parochial, might now begin to heal. But one official who didn't waste many words of sympathy for the outgoing archbishop was, ominously, Massachusetts Attorney General Tom Reilly. While conceding that under Massachusetts law it would be difficult to hold a church superior accountable for the actions of his underlings, Reilly has subpoenaed Law and five other bishops to appear before a grand jury. Speaking of the long history of abuses and cover-ups, Reilly said: "This could have been stopped a long time ago, but it wasn't."

The other dominant emotion was sympathy for Bishop Richard Lennon, who inherits the disaster left behind by Law. As "apostolic administrator," he will run the archdiocese of Boston, with its 362 parishes and more than 2 million Catholics, until a new archbishop is chosen by the pope. (Law will remain the senior American cardinal.) One of Lennon's first challenges will be to find an estimated $100 million or more to settle as many as 450 claims by alleged victims, or else pursue a risky bankruptcy that would delay and drastically reduce any payments. A bankruptcy filing "will never, never happen," a well-connected cardinal told NEWSWEEK. The idea of a civil judge's taking control of the archdiocese's books is inconceivable to the Vatican, even if that means it ends up paying some of the claims itself. …

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