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Law's words frame new play

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Spotlight Report

Law has little to say after Rome trip

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 2/9/2002

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Cardinal Bernard F. Law returned to Boston from Rome yesterday and immediately holed up with his aides, facing the most serious crisis of his lengthy career.

In brief remarks to reporters upon his arrival at Logan International Airport, Law described his visit to the Vatican as intense but routine, and said he did not meet personally with Pope John Paul II. He declined to answer any questions.

Most church-watchers agree that Law's future is in his own hands - the Vatican is unlikely to force him out, and Law must himself decide whether he can survive a clergy sexual abuse scandal that has led nearly half of local Catholics surveyed to conclude he should quit, according to a Boston Globe/WBZ-TV poll published yesterday.

''He will never be fired, in the sense of firing as we normally understand it,'' said the Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. ''He isn't going to be asked to retire, because he's too young for that, and that would be seen as a repudiation. If he does leave, it will be for a Vatican post that allows him to retain his dignity.''

Law, who is 70 and has served as archbishop of Boston since 1984, is required under church rules to submit his resignation to the pope in 2006, when he turns 75. He said in an interview last fall that he had no interest in moving to Rome, and that he expected to spend the remainder of his career in Boston.

McBrien and other Vatican scholars say Law is too influential, and his handling of clergy sexual abuse too similar to the way other bishops have handled the issue, to warrant his ouster. The scandal in Boston has not attracted much attention in Rome, and the Vatican has rarely acted decisively against pedophilia.

''I don't think Law's influence with the Vatican has ever been matched in the US hierarchy,'' McBrien said. ''He's been very popular at the Vatican. He's been less popular among the US hierarchy, [but] I'm sure a lot of bishops are worried about what's happening because, let's face it, problem priests are not only in Boston.''

At the Vatican this week, papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Vals refused to offer any expression of support or condemnation of Law, saying that the Vatican does not comment on issues pertaining to local archdioceses.

And at the Vatican Embassy in Washington, the Rev. Gabriel Montalvo, the apostolic nuncio, said he would discuss his views of Law only with the Holy See.

Law, who spent a week in Rome to attend meetings of the Vatican Congregation for Bishops and Congregation for Education, was unavailable for an interview in Rome, and managed to avoid several Catholic news organizations that tried to contact him there. Greeting reporters waiting for him at the airport yesterday, the cardinal did not address his future or the poll that showed 48 percent of 800 local Catholics surveyed want him to resign, while 38 percent do not and 14 percent don't know.

Law, who since announcing a policy of zero tolerance of pedophilia has turned over the names of as many as 87 priests accused of sexual misconduct, said he was saddened at having to remove six more priests on Thursday.

''But at the same time, I'm gratified by the fact that what we have set out to do we are doing and we are doing well,'' he said. ''Our records, going back 40 years, are being combed and combed again, and our intent is to do everything we possibly can to ensure the protection of children as we move forward.''

Law said he would answer questions from the news media tomorrow, after celebrating Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston.

Vatican journalists and insiders who make a career of deciphering the secretive ways of the Catholic Church say they believe Law will not be forced out by the pope.

''I don't think he has any problem,'' said Marco Tosatti, Vatican correspondent for La Stampa, a daily based in Turin, Italy. ''The normal rule is that if they have to make a change, they will never do it while the problem is open. Never. As long as the problem is open, the Vatican will make no changes which could be interpreted as a sign of guilt. They defend. Always. They don't care about public relations. For them, this is a rule.''

John L. Allen Jr., Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, an American weekly, said the Vatican rarely bends to public or media pressure.

''This is an extraordinary case, and Law made some very serious blunders,'' Allen said. ''But cardinals have blundered before and the Vatican has given them the chance to repair the damage. It's serious and it's ugly. At this stage I don't see it as a career-killer.''

Cardinals are almost never forced out. There appears to be only one instance of a high-ranking church leader being forced to resign for mishandling allegations of sexual abuse by other priests. A Welsh archbishop, John Aloysius Ward of Cardiff, was forced to resign last October after allegedly ignoring complaints about two priests who were then convicted of pedophilia.

The last American prelate to quit under Vatican pressure was Raymond G. Hunthausen, who resigned as archbishop of Seattle in 1986 after the Vatican - supported by Law - came to the conclusion that Hunthausen was too liberal.

But in the vast majority of cases in which bishops have resigned in scandal, it is because of their own personal sexual or financial misconduct. For example, Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer of Vienna resigned in 1995 over charges that he had molested seminarians. Over the last decade, at least five American bishops have resigned over allegations that they had sex with men, women, or boys.

Law is a special case for several reasons. He does not stand accused of personal misconduct, and his handling of allegations of misconduct by other priests, which he has called ''in retrospect ... tragically incorrect,'' was not dissimilar from the way other Catholic bishops have handled sexual misconduct by priests.

''The weight of public opinion is heavily against him, but I would imagine the case of Cardinal [Joseph] Bernardin is always in the back of the mind - that was a cardinal who was wrongly accused [of sexual abuse] and he wound up being exonerated in the court of public opinion,'' said Jason Berry, the author of the first major book on sexual abuse by priests, ''Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children.'' ''Who knows whether the media coverage is registering. We tend to think that a big news story has an impact, but the Vatican is half a world away.''

McBrien agreed, saying, ''I would never give the Vatican a lot of credit in terms of being pastorally sensitive to situations far removed from Rome.''

Law has also been an unusually important bishop, a leading voice on Catholic social policy and foreign policy who maintains close ties to the Vatican and the White House.

He has supporters throughout the country and the world by virtue of his position as a member of the Congregation for Bishops. Law has successfully recommended for promotion numerous Boston priests who now head dioceses around the nation, and he has a hand in the selection of bishops around the world.

''I can assure you that Cardinal Law is held in great respect and admiration at the Vatican,'' said Lindy Boggs, the former US ambassador to the Holy See.

None of Law's fellow American cardinals were available this week to offer an opinion on his standing, but a spokesman for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops said Law retains the support of his fellow bishops.

''Cardinal Law is an extremely capable man who over the years has had the admiration of his fellow bishops, and they're going to judge him on everything he's done,'' said Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, director of communications for the bishops' conference. ''This is a terrible case, but it's not the only thing he has done in his life or as a bishop of the church.''

Bishop Kenneth A. Angell of Burlington, Vt., offered Law ''my prayers and my support'' and called Law ''a caring pastor to his people and loyal servant of the church.''

''The cardinal is presently dealing with a very difficult situation, and with customary candor has publicly admitted some mistakes in dealing with the assignment of priests accused of abusing children,'' Angell said. ''Cardinal Law is now acting with courage to rectify these mistakes.''

Since reports last month by the Globe Spotlight Team spurred new attention to clergy sexual abuse in Boston, Law has repeatedly apologized for reassigning priest pedophile John J. Geoghan, but has said he does not think he should quit.

''I do not believe that submitting my resignation to the Holy Father is the answer to the terrible scourge of sexual abuse of children by priests,'' he said in a letter to area Catholics Jan. 26.

If Law does want a way out, the most common path would be to take a job in Rome, overseeing a part of the Vatican operation. This method has been used before to give unpopular cardinals a dignified escape - some historians argue that's what happened in 1958, when Cardinal Samuel Stritch of Chicago was moved to the Vatican, and in 1990, when Cardinal Edmund Szoka of Detroit was moved to Rome.

There are three American cardinals stationed in Rome, and the senior American, Cardinal William Baum, is expected to return to the United States soon for health reasons.

Globe correspondents Jeff Israely in Rome and Lauren Rouleau in Boston contributed to this report.

Michael Paulson can be reached by e-mail at

This story ran on page A7 of the Boston Globe on 2/9/2002.
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