The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


Regaining stature a hard task for Law

Dallas proceedings put challenge in sharp relief

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 6/18/2002

He could have sneaked in a back door or entered through the garage, but instead he arrived and departed through the grand entrance of his hotel, where photographers, tipped off by his spokeswoman, were able to snap his picture.

He could have stayed hidden in the security-protected upper reaches of the Fairmont Dallas, but instead he broke four months of silence by agreeing to grant reporters from Boston five minute interviews, declaring as he walked toward rolling cameras, ''I'm glad I'm seeing you all,'' and saying the next morning to the journalists who had interviewed him, ''Thanks for last night.''

Cardinal Bernard F. Law's efforts at openness during the meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops were sharply limited and tightly controlled: He traveled by private plane and declined to identify the owner, and when he left Dallas Saturday his staff declined to say where he was going.

But after months of ducking reporters, Law dipped a toe into the waters of accessibility and he apologized to fellow bishops for his role in triggering a nationwide clergy sexual abuse crisis by his failure to remove abusive priests from ministry.

Law's effort at rehabilitating his damaged stature so that he can resume functioning as a spiritual leader for 1 million Catholics in Eastern Massachusetts, regain his voice on moral issues such as the Middle East crisis, sexual ethics, and poverty, and raise enough money to sustain the church's programs remains a daunting (and many suggest impossible) challenge.

''It's clear that Catholics and non-Catholics in this diocese have not even begun to think about closure,'' said Richard J. Santagati, president of Merrimack College, a Catholic institution in North Andover. ''I don't hear a hue and cry from the Catholic community saying, `We need to move on and all is forgiven.' I still hear the same disappointment, and now they're showing displeasure with the way they support Catholic initiatives.''

Many priests and theologians believe that it is only a matter of time before Law resigns as archbishop of Boston.

But Law insists that he is staying in his current job and said he will restore his credibility ''only with God's help, and I pray for that constantly.''

''I'm here as archbishop and that's where I should be,'' he said Friday night.

A number of things happened in Dallas that arguably might boost Law's standing. Although he was less visible than many bishops who readily talked with the news media, he did momentarily break his silence; his decision to greet in the hotel lobby some Bostonians who turned out to be vociferous critics led to photographs that made it appear as if he were reaching out to his opponents.

A Dallas Morning News report suggested that two-thirds of the country's bishops had failed to remove abusive priests from ministry, making Law look like one among many.

But the bishops' conference also featured much discussion about the need to hold bishops accountable and closed with Governor Frank Keating of Oklahoma, the new leader of a church panel on sexual abuse, saying of Law, ''I haven't been very impressed with the way he's handled these awful cases.''

His fellow bishops largely refused to talk about Law's future, saying that it is between the cardinal and the pope, and they did not offer ringing endorsements.

''The question of resignation depends upon the Holy Father, and I'm not going to hazard a guess as to what kind of concerns have been expressed between the Holy Father and Cardinal Law,'' said Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago. ''They have discussed it.''

Many laypeople said Law has become a symbol of the church crisis and argued that his continuing presence in Boston is a reminder that the bishops are refusing to punish their own.

''He's a symbol that you save a bishop no matter what, even if he is not helpful, even if his presence does not promote amity and responsibility,'' said Garry Wills, an adjunct professor of history at Northwestern University and the author of several books about Catholicism. ''His mere presence says anyone who is a bishop is untouchable.''

When Law returns to Boston he may benefit from the onset of summer and the completion of the national policy debate, both of which are likely to lessen the intensity of public and press focus on this issue.

''This issue has gone on for so long, there's a certain point at which people just turn off,'' said Richard E. Nicolazzo, a Boston crisis communications specialist.

''There are those activists that are emotionally involved, intellectually involved, and spiritually involved, and their interest in this issue continues unabated, but others have OD'd and as a result have tuned out. Unless there is some smoking gun that none of us are aware of, then I believe he's weathered the storm,.'' he said.

Law also faces renewed criticism from victims over his proposal to limit monetary settlements and a stream of ongoing revelations in legal cases. Also, Voice of the Faithful, a lay reform group based in Wellesley, is planning a convention in July that is likely to attract considerable attention to reform efforts.

''Dallas was a positive step, but it's not the end,'' said Lisa Sowle Cahill, a Boston College theologian. ''I don't think Law is more damaged after Dallas, but he still suffers from a poor track record in this archdiocese and a great amount of unrest in the church.''

Thomas Farragher and Sacha Pfeiffer contributed to this report. Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 6/18/2002.
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