The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


Despite departure, archdiocese faces 'a real mess' in court

By Sacha Pfeiffer, Globe Staff, 12/14/2002

As the shock waves dissipated following yesterday's Vatican announcement that Cardinal Bernard F. Law had resigned, a sobering reality emerged: His departure does little to resolve the legal quagmire now gripping the Boston Archdiocese, including the nearly 500 pending legal claims and lawsuits brought by alleged sexual abuse victims.

Even with Law gone, ''there's a mess, a real mess,'' said the Rev. John P. Beal, a professor of canon law at the Catholic University of America. ''You've got all those lawsuits out there, and that's going to be expensive. You've got the possibility of the diocese being forced to file for bankruptcy, and what that will mean, God only knows.''

On the legal front, Law's resignation will have little impact. Although Law is no longer expected to be involved in attempting to resolve the hundreds of legal claims against the archdiocese, settlement talks will continue. He is still expected to attend his next deposition, scheduled for Tuesday - prompting Beal to note ruefully that, with so much unresolved litigation, Law may become a ''professional witness'' in his post-archbishop days.

Law, along with more than five other bishops, is also still required to appear before a state grand jury looking into possible criminal violations by church officials who supervised priests accused of sexually abusing children.

And in a further sign that new disclosures, and perhaps new litigation, are yet to come, the personnel records of an additional 28 priests who faced allegations of molesting minors were turned over yesterday by church officials to the law firm handling abuse lawsuits against the Rev. Paul R. Shanley, according to Boston attorney Roderick MacLeish Jr.

Yesterday's shipment means that MacLeish's firm, Greenberg Traurig, has received files on 111 priests.

''Legally, it doesn't change much. All the suits are still there,'' Beal said, though he said Law's departure could improve the legal climate somewhat. ''The only hope you have is that by bringing in someone who is not so personally tainted by this thing they can begin the process of healing and perhaps be a figure who is a bit more sympathetic and help to reach a settlement in some of the disputes.''

Indeed, some observers said one positive effect of Law's departure may be that a new face at the negotiating table could inject settlement talks with a fresh sense of cooperation.

''Sometimes it's just a lot easier for the new guy to clean up the mess because he can meet with the people and say, `Hey, I'm very sympathetic to you but please don't get too mad at me because I didn't cause this. So let's apologize and fix this and move forward,''' said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of America, a Jesuit weekly.

Legal woes aren't the only problems that will continue to plague the Boston Archdiocese; it still must grapple with plummeting donations and church attendance by parishioners, and sinking morale among priests.

And it is widely agreed that no matter what steps church officials take to begin to repair the damage, the tasks ahead will be difficult and time-consuming.

''I'd say whoever comes into Boston is going to be handed five years of a lot of litigation, a lot of legal problems, a lot of public relations problems, and a lot of spiritual problems, all of which have to be dealt with in a new manner,'' said Deal Hudson, editor of Crisis magazine, a conservative Catholic journal.

James E. Post, president of Voice of the Faithful, a lay reform group founded this year that now counts 25,000 members, had an even more pessimistic view.

''In talking about the prospect for recovery, people are saying this is at least a decade-long job that stands in front of us,'' he said. ''The pain in Boston right now is so severe that the first requirement is that someone come and begin the process of listening and consultation and dialogue with the priests, the laity, and the survivors. Renewal in Boston absolutely depends on the collaboration of all these parties.''

Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at

This story ran on page A13 of the Boston Globe on 12/14/2002.
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