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Spotlight Report

Priests weigh call for Law's departure

Capital campaign delay also urged

By Michael Paulson and Stephen Kurkjian, Globe Staff, 12/7/2002

NEWTON - Scores of Boston priests, saying they are under intense pressure from their parishioners to speak out, are debating proposals to call for Cardinal Bernard F. Law's resignation publicly.

A group of priests is also circulating a draft statement calling on the Archdiocese of Boston to consider the suspension of its $300 million capital campaign, because, they say, it is impossible to raise money at a time when the archdiocese may declare bankruptcy amid a flood of lawsuits by alleged victims of clergy abuse.

The priests, including members of the Boston Priests' Forum and priests who are supposed to start raising millions of dollars for the campaign next month, are in near-open rebellion -- a remarkable development in a church where priests promise obedience to their bishop and rarely speak out.

"We are not a military regiment -- we are a church -- and we do not promise blind obedience," said the Rev. Robert W. Bullock, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Sharon and the leader of the Boston Priests' Forum. "Our primary responsibility is to our God and our consciences."

Bullock said that he expects the Priests' Forum to debate calling for Law to resign next Friday and that "if we do it properly, it would not be a violation of obedience, but a fulfillment of it."

"The landscape is so altered now, we've got to rethink everything," he said. "This is a disaster of the first order, primarily for the survivor-victims, but also for the entire ecclesial community."

But some younger priests are anxious to speak out sooner -- perhaps as soon as this weekend -- and they have been discussing proposals that an ad hoc group of priests comes forward to call for Law to resign. A handful of priests have already taken that step as individuals.

"In every parish, people are saying, `Why doesn't the cardinal resign?' and then they look at us and say, `Why haven't you called for his resignation?"' said the Rev. Paul E. Kilroy, who has not called for Law's resignation and says he does not intend to.

"There is more and more pressure for priests to speak out. Will it happen? I don't know, but it's probably closer to the imagination than it ever has been."

The efforts of priests to mobilize are occurring at the end of a brutal week for the archdiocese and for Law. The church acknowledged that the volume of lawsuits has forced it to contemplate the unprecedented step of bankruptcy, and plaintiffs' attorneys have released thousands of pages of church files detailing allegations of sexual abuse, violence, and drug use by Boston-area priests.

One case even provoked a preliminary criminal inquiry; Norfolk County District Attorney William R. Keating said he will look into allegations that a priest may have been present when a Needham woman died of a drug overdose in 1973.

And in a shift yesterday, attorneys representing about half the 450 alleged victims suing the church said they will resume attempts to negotiate a settlement with the archdiocese, after saying that talks were pointless if the bankruptcy filing was imminent.

About 45 priests gathered yesterday at Our Lady Help of Christians Church in Newton to discuss the crisis in the church. The priests are about one-third of those who are to start raising millions of dollars for the church early next year, in the final phase of the fund-raising drive. The meeting was held despite an edict from Law banning archdiocesan meetings at Our Lady, whose pastor has had differences with the cardinal and has questioned some church teachings.

The priests say it is increasingly difficult to raise money in this climate. Kilroy said his parish finance council "looked at me aghast" when he told them they needed to raise $500,000 while the archdiocesan finance council has given the green light to a bankruptcy filing. He said some priests are talking about resigning rather than participate in the fund-raising campaign.

"How can you go to people and ask them for money for an organization that is going to go bankrupt?" he asked. "It just doesn't make sense."

The Rev. Walter H. Cuenin, the pastor of Our Lady Help of Christians, said the priests support the fund-raising drive, but believe the timing is wrong.

"We support the campaign because the idea behind it is good and the church needs the money, but right now it's very difficult to go to people when they're hurt and ask for money, and the threat of bankruptcy in the air makes it almost ludicrous," Cuenin said. "There was a discussion of whether we could postpone the campaign or delay it. The timing of it is not good."

David O'Brien, the director of the Center for Religion, Ethics and Culture at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, said the priests' dissension was unusual. He said the last similar instance of rebellion by American priests against a bishop was in the late 19th century, when the church was riven by issues of authority and ethnicity.

"It's taken a while, but they seem to be very upset," he said. "It is very unusual for priests to speak publicly in criticism of their bishop. This makes even more difficult the continuation of Cardinal Law as the bishop of the diocese."

Yesterday Law continued the public silence he has maintained all week. Last night he did not make an expected appearance at a fund-raising dinner for Catholic Charities. He is scheduled to celebrate Mass tomorrow at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, and then to travel to Washington, D.C., tomorrow night for a meeting of the Catholic University of America board of trustees. Law has been the chairman of that board for 12 years, but is planning to step down. He is expected to return to Boston on Wednesday.

Law's spokesman, the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, declined to comment on what priests might do, saying "it would be speculation until there is something concrete."

However, he said, "priests, like all of us, are very upset about the revelations of this past week."

Those revelations seem certain to continue; plaintiffs' lawyers still have files on 59 priests that they have not made public.

And the Norfolk County district attorney's office said yesterday it is launching a preliminary investigation into one of the more shocking cases revealed this week, in which the Rev. James D. Foley, 69, allegedly was with a Needham woman just before she died of a drug overdose, and failed to call for help promptly. Keating's spokesman, David Traub, said the prosecutor would seek "records, documents, and information" from a variety of sources, including the church, police, and medical officials relating to the death of the unnamed woman.

In 1993 and 1994, Foley acknowledged in interviews with church officials, including Law, that he had fathered two children with the woman and was in bed with her when she suffered a seizure. Law suspended Foley for a year.

Foley was removed as associate pastor of St. Joseph's Church in Salem on Thursday, following the public release of church documents describing his relationship with the woman who died.

In an interview Thursday, Foley told The Boston Globe that he had maintained a relationship with the woman for several years in the 1960s while at St. Bartholomew's in Needham but that he had tried to end it by seeking an assignment in Calgary. They resumed their relationship, he said, when he returned to the Boston Archdiocese in 1969.

Needham Police Lieutenant Thomas J. Leary said he had been unable to find any records relating to the woman's death in his initial review of department records.

Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, a criminal investigation into clergy sex abuse is continuing. Attorney General Philip T. McLaughlin has scheduled a grand jury session for Dec. 14 at which he will seek an indictment against the Manchester Diocese for violation of the state's child endangerment law, according to news reports. That would make Manchester the first diocese in the country to face criminal charges in a clergy abuse case.

However, individuals familiar with the probe said McLaughlin has offered the diocese an alternative to an indictment. He would hold off bringing the criminal case if the diocese agreed to acknowledge that church officials had failed to supervise its priests properly and to establish a process that would prevent such abuse. The church has not signed the agreement.

Matt Carroll of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.

Michael Paulson can be reached by e-mail at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 12/7/2002.
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