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Spotlight Report

Law's future on minds at summit

Resignation talk spurs media flurry

By Charles M. Sennott, Globe Staff, 4/23/2002

Cardinal Bernard F. Law and Monsignor Paul B. McInerny (right), director of Boston Catholic Television, arriving in Rome. (Globe Staff Photo / David L. Ryan)

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Discordant cultures to meet

VATICAN CITY - The American Catholic leadership gathered here for an unprecedented summit starting today on the priest sexual abuse scandals that have shaken the church's hierarchy, with the spotlight glaring on Cardinal Bernard F. Law and pressure growing on him to resign as head of the Boston Archdiocese.

As soon as he landed at Rome's international airport early yesterday, Law was hounded by a pack of reporters shouting questions about whether he would step down. Looking pale and haggard after an overnight flight and stunned at the hostile media onslaught, the 70-year-old cleric tried to downplay expectations for the meeting and dodge questions about his own fate.

At one point Law looked in horror at the journalists who swarmed him and blocked his exit from the airport and said simply, ''My God!'' Said one cameraman, ''Welcome to Rome.''

Even before the gathering of America's cardinals and top bishops had gotten underway, it was clear that Law's handling of sexual abuse cases in the Boston Archdiocese had made him the lightning rod for criticism of the wider failures of the church leadership's handling of abusive priests. The cases that have come to light in Boston lie at the epicenter of a scandal now rippling across the country.

In response to a flurry of reporters' questions about the two-day gathering, Law paused for a minute before the cameras and said: ''It's a very significant meeting, but I don't think we will be making any decisions. It is part of a process, and that process will continue in June.''

He was referring to the US Conference of Bishops meeting in Dallas, where the leadership is expected to adopt a set of standards for all 194 American dioceses on investigating accusations of sexual abuse against priests. Standards would also cover the reporting of such allegations to civil law enforcement authorities.

Law was taken by limousine from the airport to the Vatican's gates, where the legendary Swiss Guard stand sentry. He was the only one of eight visiting American clerics to stay at a private residence inside the city-state.

Just a year ago, when Law was still seen as the brightest clerical star of American Catholicism, that treatment would have been seen as one more example of his unique access and power. But now, Vatican observers said, it was a symbol of his isolation from his fellow cardinals and his inundation by the media.

Continuing a rigid, two-month-long stance against interviews with reporters, Law declined to address a news report that a movement was afoot by his fellow senior American clerics to push him to resign without delay.

Interviews with three of the senior clerics who will be attending the meetings suggested that while the issue of Law's future was not on the agenda, speculation was thick in the air on whether Law would keep his red cardinal's cap.

''Obviously the cardinal is in a very difficult situation,'' said Bishop William S. Skylstad, vice president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

''It's a very difficult and painful moment for him. We have to assess whether his credibility can be restored.''

A Los Angeles Times report yesterday, quoting an unnamed cardinal and a bishop, stated that there was a movement to push the Vatican to ask Law to resign prior to the June meeting. The report touched off a media frenzy yesterday over Law's fate.

Washington's Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick said: ''I think if someone felt very strongly they would speak to him [Law] privately. I can't see a cabal.''

McCarrick said he did not believe Law should resign. ''I listened to what he [Law] said the other day. He said I can get it under control and I can fix it,'' McCarrick added. ''I think he feels like it's a moral obligation because he was there when it happened. I say give him a chance. That's my own position at this time.''

Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that Law's situation was not unlike that of a partner in a troubled marriage and that it was important to try to work it out, not walk away.

He said that the issue of Law's resignation was not a central one in the two days of meetings that lay ahead and that he believed it probably would not be discussed: ''That is an issue that is between the bishop and the Holy Father; we are not being called to make a decision on Boston. We are talking about the issue in a broader context of the safety of children and the proper implementation and the proper organization of procedures and protocols on a national level.''

The public statements by the eight cardinals who run American dioceses and the two senior bishops who had been summoned by Pope John Paul II did not indicate any plans for a push to force Law to resign.

But a senior American cleric, who said he had spoken at length with four of the cardinals, said: ''There is a consensus that Law should ask the pope again to accept his resignation.

''There is a great deal of anger that has accrued against Law because the mistakes he made have undercut years of effort by the other cardinals to set standards and involve the laity in ensuring that priest sexual abuse allegations are properly handled.''

The senior cleric spoke on the condition that his name and full title not be disclosed.

Law, who went on a secret visit to Rome a week ago, said in a statement that in a meeting with Vatican officials, including the pope, he had noted that his resignation ''had been proposed as necessary.''

But at the meeting the pope apparently did not accept Law's resignation. Law yesterday refused to answer questions on whether he would offer his resignation again, and referred reporters to comments he had made in Boston on Sunday.

''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 this crisis,'' Law said in a statement at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End.

Law's struggle through the media swarm blocking his path at the airport yesterday underscored how the crisis has engulfed him personally.

In 1985, when he was elevated to the rank of cardinal, it was a crowning moment of a career of hard work in the civil rights movement and in interfaith dialogue. In the 17 years that followed, he was regarded as a superstar fund-raiser within the American Catholic hierarchy. He had access to the highest levels of power in Washington, and the pope personally relied on him for leadership in the wealthiest and most vibrant Catholic community in the world.

All that seems a long time ago, and a stellar career is now being overshadowed by scandal. In the end, many observers believe that the same rigid hierarchical structure that Law endorsed has now contributed to his troubles.

The Rev. James Keenan, a professor of ethics at Weston Jesuit School of Theology who is currently in Rome doing research, said: ''Law's influence on the life of the American church has been extraordinary. He is the most powerful cardinal in America in a generation.

''But Cardinal Law's eyes look up to the pope to make the decision on this. That is what clerical culture is all about. But it is not a model for good governance, and that is what this scandal is all about. We are watching the old hierarchy blow up in all of our faces.''

Eugene Kennedy, a former priest and psychology professor at Loyola University in Chicago, said, ''Cardinal Law, a good and gracious man, has found himself caught in the gears of the same hierarchy that created him. Had this problem been remanded to the ordinary people, the lay resources of lawyers and psychologists and other professionals, this could have evolved completely differently ... They didn't want any one to participate because it undermines their hierarchy. Now that hierarchy has a disaster that is equivalent to a Catholic Chernobyl on its hands.''

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 4/23/2002.
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