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Spotlight Report

Law offers steps against abuse

Outlines changes for diocese, vows to consult pontiff

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 4/22/2002

Cardinal Bernard F. Law yesterday with churchgoers after a Mass at which he spoke about the clergy abuse crisis. (Globe Pool Photo)

Transcript of Law's speech

 Related stories
Law's supporters counter protests

Calling the clergy sexual abuse crisis ''a wake-up call for the church,'' Cardinal Bernard F. Law yesterday departed for Rome vowing to tell Pope John Paul II how seriously the issue is roiling Catholicism.

Law, longtime archbishop of Boston, endorsed several proposals the church has long resisted in combating clergy sexual abuse, including an expedited process for defrocking abusive priests and a scientific study of priest sexual abuse.

Law also disassociated himself from an assertion by two fellow cardinals, as well as other church leaders, that the media are exaggerating the crisis.

''The crisis of clergy sexual abuse of minors is not just a media-driven or public perception concern in the United States, but is a very serious issue undermining the mission of the Catholic Church,'' he said.

Law made his extensive remarks before Mass yesterday at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End. The Mass was Law's first public appearance in nearly two weeks.

His remarks met with a standing ovation from the approximately 600 people attending Mass at the cathedral, which was hosting its jubilee service in honor of couples married for 25 or 50 years.

As worshipers entered the cathedral they had to make their way through about 40 protesters along Washington Street demand0ing Law's resignation, including one man shouting through a bullhorn for Law to be indicted. But as the worshipers left, two dozen supporters of the cardinal staged a counterdemonstration on the cathedral steps, singing and holding signs supporting the archbishop.

Law, who has been criticized for his handling of priests accused of sexual abuse of minors, acknowledged the clamor for his resignation. Although in previous public appearances he has said he did not intend to resign, he did not repeat that assertion yesterday.

''Regrettably, I and many others have been late to recognize the inadequacy of past policies, the dimensions of the crisis, and the changes required to restore a sense of public trust,'' he said. ''The repeated calls for my resignation are a clear signal that many feel my leadership efforts in this area have been inadequate.''

Across the country, cardinals took leave of their dioceses and headed for the Vatican, where 12 of the 13 American cardinals are expected to meet with the pope and other Roman Catholic leaders tomorrow and Wednesday to discuss the clergy sexual abuse crisis.

Cardinal Edward M. Egan of New York, for example, asked parishioners at a Bronx church to ''keep us in your prayers these next four or five days.'' Archbishops in New York, Baltimore, Miami, and Detroit had messages read at their churches this weekend. Two of the church's most media-savvy prelates, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington and Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, were deployed to the Sunday morning talk shows.

At the Vatican yesterday, Pope John Paul II made only a glancing reference to the upcoming meeting, telling a group of priests he ordained that they had to be ''perfect.'' The pontiff had spoken at greater length about the subject on Saturday, reiterating his support for priestly celibacy and urging bishops to ''diligently investigate accusations'' of misconduct.

Law left for Rome accompanied only by one of his closest confidants and strongest supporters, Monsignor Paul B. McInerny, director of Boston Catholic Television. McInerny previously served for a decade as Law's personal secretary. Law's aides said they did not know when the cardinal would return to Boston, but said they do expect him to return.

Law did not speak to reporters - he has not done so in more than two months - and in his speech he gave no clue as to his plans, except to say that whatever he does, he will work to protect children.

''Despite the anger and broken trust that many feel toward me, and despite perceptions that next week is simply a gathering of aged, conservative cardinals and Vatican officials, please know that as long as I am in a position to do so, I will work tirelessly to address the crisis and to underscore its severity,'' he said.

As he has done before, Law said he wishes he could undo the past.

''I wish that I could turn the clock back and undo the hurt and harm that have been caused to children, families, and others as a result of some actions and decisions made both before my arrival in 1984 and during my tenure as archbishop,'' he said. ''While I cannot undo the past, and many feel I cannot effectively fix the problems for the future, please know that I am committed to bring before the Holy Father, officials of the Holy See, and bishops of other dioceses in our nation and throughout the world our experience in Boston - both our significant mistakes as well as our successful efforts.''

Law said he would not only reiterate the seriousness of the clergy sexual abuse issue to the Vatican, but would propose that any priest facing a ''credible'' allegation of abuse be removed from active ministry and that all church workers be educated about child sexual abuse. He has already imposed a zero-tolerance policy in Boston, and is developing a training program for church workers.

Law also called for support services for victims and their families, for accused priests, and for priests who are not accused of abuse but are struggling nonetheless. The Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, a spokesman for Law, said the archdiocese is establishing three offices, one to investigate allegations of abuse, one to support victims and encourage healing, and one to support priests accused of abuse.

Law touched briefly on calls for broader reform in the church. He said he would support greater openness, as well as a ''stronger voice in the life of the church'' for lay people. He did not address calls for changes in the requirement for celibacy of priests, or calls for the ordination of women, but he left an opening for discussion of those subjects by saying, ''be sure that I will also attempt to reflect what I have heard in various listening sessions and pastoral encounters.''

Law said that he does not expect this week's meetings to produce a detailed plan for a policy change, but that this gathering will lay the groundwork for a meeting of the US bishops in June, at which clergy sexual abuse policies are to be fully debated.

Law's statement received generally positive reaction, although few people interviewed said it would restore his popularity.

''Of all the statements he's made since this terrible situation began, this is the most contrite - it is very well written and I'm sure it's sincere,'' said the president of Merrimack College, Richard J. Santagati. ''But it will be difficult for many people to read this and feel totally comfortable, because the trust has been broken.''

Some saw the detailed statement as a sign that the meeting in Rome might be more substantive than anticipated.

''At this time the American Catholic Church needs its cardinals to give bold leadership in response to this tragedy and crisis, and if they're willing to do so, and it sounds as if they might be, then this meeting in Rome could surprise us and be the catalyst that initiates some real and much-needed systemic reform,'' said Thomas H. Groome, a Boston College theologian and the author of ''What Makes Us Catholic.''

A lawyer for victims also welcomed parts of the statement.

''There are some commendable parts, particularly the recognition that this is not a media-driven crisis, which differentiates him from the views trickling out from other cardinals and bishops, and appears to be a backing-away from the strategy of blaming this on false claims and greedy lawyers,'' said Roderick MacLeish Jr.

MacLeish said the church has yet to follow through on some of its promises. He said the archdiocese should release its files on several other onetime priests accused of molesting children in multiple locales, such as the late Rev. Joseph E. Birmingham, the Rev. Ronald H. Paquin, and the Rev. Richard O. Matte, and then needs to explain its handling of those and other cases.

''Apologies aren't enough,'' MacLeish said. ''Healing cannot happen, no matter who is running this diocese, until the facts come out and they give whatever explanation there is.''

The Vatican meeting is to be attended by the eight cardinals who head US archdioceses, the three US cardinals assigned full time to the Vatican, and Cardinal Avery Dulles, a Fordham University theologian, as well as the two bishops who lead the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 4/22/2002.
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