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Spotlight Report


Common-man treatment for a cardinal

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 5/9/2002

Cardinal Bernard Law, center, leaves Suffolk County Superior Court following his deposition. (Globe Staff Photo / David L. Ryan)

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And now, it has come to this: Cardinal Bernard F. Law, the most prominent prelate of the nation's largest religious denomination, appearing under a judge's order at a towering county courthouse, protected by police, hounded by reporters, and questioned about sex.

This was the moment Law had wanted to avoid - a circus associated with criminals, not cardinals, a ritual resembling a perp walk for a man who has spent his life as a pastor. It was just a civil deposition, and Law himself is not accused of abuse, but it had all the trappings of a courthouse drama - the cardinal was smuggled into the building's garage via an unmarked car with darkly tinted windows and he used a back elevator to avoid the horde of cameras.

The mighty have traveled this road before - Bill Clinton was forced to submit to an embarrassing deposition in the Paula Jones case, and Microsoft CEO Bill Gates squirmed through lengthy questioning in an antitrust case. The Gates deposition, plus Clinton's appearance before a grand jury, both initially secret, wound up on national TV, and both men's images suffered.

For Law, a prince of the church, a man whose ring people kiss and who is routinely addressed as ''Your Eminence,'' yesterday marked a symbolic end of deference. A judge who had been raised Catholic, and said she was concerned that the Vatican might transfer the cardinal to Rome to prevent him from having to answer questions, ordered him to appear.

''Here you have a guy who is used to asking questions, not answering them, and now he's like every other Joe, sitting there answering personal and aggressive questions,'' said Robert S. Bennett, the Washington lawyer who represented Clinton in the Paula Jones deposition. ''At a minimum, this reminds people of his connection with events that are not favorable to him. Any scandal needs fresh oxygen every day, like Count Dracula needs fresh blood, and the mere release of the depositions, even if there's nothing harmful in them, is that fresh supply of oxygen.''

Law seems destined to spend a significant amount of the time he might have spent visiting the sick or assisting the poor answering the questions of lawyers: His office said yesterday that the deposition, which lasted six hours yesterday, will continue tomorrow and Monday at his residence in Brighton.

''Would you state your name for the record?'' the man whose visage has now graced the cover of every national newsweekly was asked at the start of yesterday's session.

''Yes,'' the cardinal said. ''My name is Bernard Francis Law.''

The deposition is only the latest sign of the degree to which Law's stature has fallen since the clergy sex abuse scandal erupted in January. The conduct of Law and his fellow cardinals has become a staple of the late night television shows, which routinely joke about the cardinals as child molesters, even though no sitting American cardinal has been accused of such behavior. Jay Leno, who grew up in the Archdiocese of Boston, refers to the Boston archbishop as ''Cardinal Above-the-Law,'' and Howie Carr, a biting columnist for the Boston Herald, makes fun of his weight.

Legal scholars say that Law's deposition is a significant turning point in the once cozy relationship between the Catholic Church and the legal system. Historically, the church asserted, and the courts agreed, that the First Amendment to the Constitution protected its right to handle its own personnel matters. But yesterday Law was forced to answer detailed questions about his process for assigning and supervising priests.

''Times have changed, and today's event symbolizes the nature of that change,'' said Douglas W. Kmiec, dean of Catholic University Law School. ''While in the past, criminal and civil authorities might comfortably have relied on the church to resolve these matters ... Now, when we live in an age of reporting laws, and when we have a higher sensitivity to the nature of the problem that confronts us, there's a social obligation to incorporate the means of public redress.''

Just as executive privilege has ceased to be a protection for government officials - remember Hillary Rodham Clinton's appearance before a grand jury - so church officials are ceasing to benefit from the de facto immunity they often enjoyed from legal scrutiny. Prosecutors in New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania have assembled grand juries to look into the conduct of the Catholic Church. Law is the second American cardinal to be forced to testify in a clergy sexual abuse case; the first was Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, who in 1998 testified in a case stemming from his days as bishop of Stockton.

''This sends a very powerful message to the high and mighty, in all spheres, that the law has the power to compel every person's testimony, and no one can escape, through prestige, or power, or riches, or religious status,'' said Rose Zoltek-Jick, a lecturer at Northeastern University School of Law.

The depositions are just one stage in a legal process that could lead to Law testifying in court in civil cases brought by people who say they were sexually abused by priests he supervised.

''The church was hoping to avoid exactly what's happening now - they wanted to avoid the spectacle and the publicity - and now that it's occurring, that particular part of their impetus for settling has dissolved,'' said Robert M. Bloom, a law professor at Boston College.

The public deposition could go part of the way to fulfilling Law's promise to make public his explanation of his actions in handling priests who sexually abuse minors - although the current deposition is in a case brought by victims of former priest John J. Geoghan, and Law has promised in particular an explanation of his handling of the case of the Rev. Paul R. Shanley. Law's spokeswoman promised that ''Cardinal Law will continue to participate in future depositions.'' He is scheduled to be deposed in the Shanley case next month.

''It's an undignified situation for a churchman with his rank and character to be publicly deposed,'' said Thomas H. O'Connor, emeritus professor of history at Boston College and the author of ''Boston Catholics.'' ''But in the long run, it may help to put an end to all the questions, to the uncertainties. All the information will be out.''

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 5/9/2002.
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