The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


Among Law's many admirers, a sympathetic view

They defend actions of cardinal, citing treatment as unfair

By Marion Lloyd, Globe Correspondent, 12/15/2002

CUERNAVACA, Mexico - Mexican church leaders have lined up behind Cardinal Bernard F. Law, saying that he had acted in the best interest of his flock, while analysts said the unprecedented resignation of such a high-ranking US Catholic official could embolden groups here who are demanding that priests be tried for sexual abuse.

Law was born in Torreon, Mexico, and is well known here and elsewhere in Latin America. He has championed causes from disaster relief in Peru and Honduras to building up the beleaguered church in Cuba, making several trips to the communist-ruled island to lobby Cuban leader Fidel Castro to relax restrictions on organized religion.

Catholic officials here voiced sympathy for the disgraced Boston prelate. ''This should not be taken as an admission of guilt,'' Bishop Abelardo Alvarado Alcantara, secretary general of the Conference of Mexican Bishops, said Friday. ''Due to the enormous pressure from dissident groups, including priests, he generously decided to do what he felt was his duty ... in the best interest of his diocese.''

Alcantara said he thought Law had been unfairly judged for his past actions by the stricter standards of responsibility that have emerged as the result of the priest sex scandal.

''It's as if we wanted to judge crimes today that at the time weren't considered serious,'' Alcantara said. ''The bishop can't be expected to denounce a priest and hand him over to a civil judge. It's like when a father knows his son is guilty, he tries to protect him and help him correct the mistake. It's a different mentality.''

He added that the new measures adopted by the US Catholic Church to investigate allegations of priestly abuse would prevent such cases from occurring in the future. ''The solution is there,'' Alcantara said.

Despite growing pressure from victims groups here, however, Mexico's Catholic bishops conference has not adopted a policy of its own for addressing complaints against priests. Mexico has the world's second largest number of Catholics, 90 million, and church officials wield enormous influence.

Since the scandal emerged in the United States, however, more Mexicans who say they were abused by priests are demanding justice. The success of victims groups in Boston in securing Law's resignation will bolster those demands, some analysts said.

''If he had resigned four months ago, it might have had the effect of pacifying people,'' said Roberto Blancarte, a leading church historian with the Colegio de Mexico and a former undersecretary of state for religious affairs. ''But he waited too long, and his resignation is going to have the opposite effect. It will motivate people more.''

The key case on the mind of many Mexicans is that of Marcial Maciel, the Mexican founder of the Legionaries of Christ religious order, who has been accused of sexually abusing male seminary students in the 1950s. Maciel, who now lives in Rome and is a close confidant of Pope John Paul II, denies the charges and has strong supporters at home. When a television station ran interviews with the alleged victims in the 1990s, it nearly went bankrupt after its Catholic sponsors withdrew funding.

Church officials have been equally reluctant to address the possibility of violations by priests. When accusations against Law first surfaced in January, Mexico's archbishop, Cardinal Norberto Rivera, decried what he called a campaign of media persecution against the US Catholic Church.

Rivera was out of the country and could not be reached for comment. But news of Law's resignation sparked reaction among other Mexican church officials, with some saying they feared it would spark a chain reaction with more church leaders being forced to step down.

''We are facing a very real possibility of a witch hunt,'' said the Rev. Luis Rodriguez, vicar general in this balmy city an hour south of the Mexican capital. ''We have to be very careful.''

Rodriguez said he believed that Law had done well in resigning, because ''that was apparently the will of the people.'' But he added that he did not judge Law for having given accused priests the benefit of the doubt, moving them from parish to parish, instead of making the allegations against them public knowledge.

Not everyone gathered outside the cathedral here Friday agreed.

''The fact that a person has reached the rank of bishop means he should have more responsibility,'' said Mayra Valle, 16, who was relaxing with friends in the shade of the cathedral's palm tree-shaded courtyard. ''It's good that he resigned, especially since he knew what was happening and he didn't do anything to protect the children. He should have spoken out.''

This story ran on page A50 of the Boston Globe on 12/15/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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