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Spotlight Report

Stance surprises political leaders; some fear split

By Kevin Cullen, Globe Staff and Chris Tangney, Globe Correspondent, 4/13/2002

Cardinal Bernard F. Law's announcement yesterday that he was staying on as archbishop of Boston, despite growing popular sentiment that he step down, was greeted by politicians and prominent Catholics with surprise, incredulity, and a smattering of support.

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Publicly, some prominent Catholics said Cardinal Law's stubbornness threatened to further divide a church already in crisis over his management of priests who sexually abused children. Privately, just as many said the statement could be a face-saving tactic forced on the cardinal by a Vatican that is wary of being perceived as bowing to popular sentiment.

Acting Governor Jane Swift issued a statement that said she respected the cardinal's decision but expressed ambivalence over whether she considered it wise.

''As a Catholic, I am heartbroken by the failure of church leaders to protect our children. But my faith remains strong. It is difficult to predict if Cardinal Law will be able to restore the confidence and support of church members. He has made his decision, and I respect it,'' Swift said.

House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, who is Catholic, declined to offer an opinion, saying the question of Law's resignation ''is entirely up to the cardinal and the hierarchy of the church to decide.''

Senate President Thomas F. Birmingham, also a Catholic, and a Democratic candidate for governor, called Law's statement disappointing. ''But right now my thoughts are with the victims more than the church hierarchy.''

Law's statement seemed to catch many of his critics off-guard. There was a growing sense among those critics that the cardinal had little choice but to resign, especially after Monday's extraordinary news conference, during which a series of documents were used to detail Law's failure to confront the child molestation accusations against the Rev. Paul R. Shanley.

Thomas P. O'Neill III, the former lieutenant governor who was part of an informal group that met with the cardinal Feb. 19 at the chancery to advise him on how to respond to the crisis, said he was stunned by the cardinal's statement.

O'Neill, who on Tuesday became the first of that ad hoc group of advisers to publicly call for Law's resignation, said he feared the cardinal's determination to stay would be divisive. And he openly questioned the cardinal for blaming poor recordkeeping for the archdiocese's failure to act against Shanley.

''The issue here is not about bad recordkeeping, but about fundamental issues of church reform. This church needs to heal and that healing process cannot begin while Cardinal Law is in place,'' said O'Neill, son of the late US House Speaker Thomas P. ''Tip'' O'Neill Jr.

Several other members of the group that met with the cardinal at the chancery said they, too, were stunned by the cardinal's statement, but none would speak publicly about it.

Paul LaCamera, the president and general manager of WCVB-TV, who was the first of the group to part company with the cardinal when he aired a March 5 editorial on Channel 5 saying that Law had lost his moral authority and should consider resigning, declined to comment, saying he was working on a new editorial for Sunday night. He declined to characterize what the station's position would be in the editorial, but others who spoke with LaCamera said it would not be favorable to the cardinal.

Many prominent area Catholics such as O'Neill and LaCamera have voiced concern that the cardinal's refusal to step aside is undermining the church's credibility on moral issues and its ability to raise money for charitable purposes. Catholic Charities says its fund-raising has been hurt by anger over the cardinal's handling of the sexual abuse scandal.

One of the cardinal's most prominent longtime supporters, who only recently concluded that Law should resign and who spoke on the condition of anonymity, expressed disappointment with the cardinal's statement.

If the cardinal tries to remain, he said, ''He will be the archbishop of Lake Street alone,'' a reference to the 66-acre tract in Brighton that houses archdiocesan headquarters, Law's residence, and St. John's Seminary.

There were also some prominent Catholics, however, voicing support for the cardinal. James Brett, a former state representative from Dorchester who now heads the New England Council, a business group, said he supports Law's cardinal's decision to stay on.

''I have faith in him,'' said Brett, who was also part of the informal group that met with Law at the chancery on Feb. 19. ''I have confidence that he can implement reform and begin the healing.''

Brett acknowledged it is a difficult time for all Catholics.

''I love my church,'' said Brett, ''and I'm faithful to the cardinal. With prayer, he'll be able to implement change.''

Some leading politicians were not as charitable. House minority leader Francis L. Marini, a Catholic, called Law's statement ''extremely troubling,'' while Senate minority leader Brian P. Lees, who is Protestant, called it ''sad,'' adding, ''It's clear that new leadership is warranted.''

Marini acknowledged that some people were urging the cardinal to tough it out, but questioned the wisdom of that counsel.

''I think it will be very difficult for the church to get past this with Cardinal Law still there,'' said Marini. ''I trust that he is doing what he believes is right. But people in a position of power such as his are inevitably surrounded by those who want to support his decision. He might do well to seek some other advice.''

State Treasurer Shannon O'Brien, a Catholic and a Democratic candidate for governor, said she was disappointed by Law's statement, ''particularly the suggestion that inadequate recordkeeping was the problem in the Shanley cases.'' But, echoing Finneran, she said the decision on the cardinal's future was one left with the church.

Steve Grossman, another Democratic gubernatorial candidate, agreed that the cardinal's future was up to the church to decide. Two other Democratic candidates for governor, Warren Tolman, who is Catholic, and Robert Reich, who is not, stood by their statements earlier this week calling for Law to resign.

''I respect his resolve to want to lead the church out of this crisis, but it is clear that the archdiocese needs new leadership. I don't think he's necessarily an impediment to any progress, but certainly it could happen more quickly without him,'' said Tolman.

Eric Fehrnstrom, deputy campaign manager for Republican gubernatorial candidate Mitt Romney, said, ''It's not Mitt's place to say whether he should continue to lead. This is a matter for Cardinal Law's own conscience. But there are legitimate questions over how this much pedophilia could have gone on unreported for so many years.''

He said Romney, a Mormon, supports the bill that would require clergy to report suspected child sexual abuse.

US Senator Edward M. Kennedy, one of the state's most prominent Catholics, issued a statement that did not take a position, except to highlight the difficulty those who have known and liked the cardinal over the years are having in taking a position:

''My thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families, today as always. I urge the cardinal and the church to reflect on the situation and to take the necessary steps to heal the wounds of the victims and the church to allow all of us to move forward.''

Walter V. Robinson of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.

This story ran on page B5 of the Boston Globe on 4/13/2002.
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