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Spotlight Report

  Peter J. Gomes  

The spirit of Advent and Cardinal Law


FOR A YEAR NOW, we Bostonians have been treated to an almost daily account of the scandal within the Archdiocese of Boston. Quickly we moved from scandal to crisis, and the crisis has been sustained by a remorseless cycle of disclosures, reactions, legal maneuvers, and media frenzy.

Consistent throughout all of this has been the call, at first muted but now in full cry, for Cardinal Law's resignation. This, it seems, would make everybody happy.

The victims would have themselves a victim; the lawyers would be able to proceed without credible opposition in the search for compensation; liberal voices for reform in the church would see a nemesis removed; and the press would have brought down a mighty figure in a near-Watergate victory with Pulitzers all around.

Some time ago, it seems, this case ceased to be about what should have been done with abusive priests and what should be done to prevent such abuses in the future. Nor was it really about the legitimacy of the claims of the victims, the appropriate size of their compensation, or the legal tactics and compensation of their lawyers. Increasingly, the case comes down to one person: the cardinal.

While the cardinal has been for some time the emotional center of this crisis, I have waited in vain to see if any of his good works would generate some supporting words from anyone in the Commonwealth who since 1984 has observed Boston's Roman Catholic archbishop as a public and consistent force for good.

Not summoned in his defense has been the fact that he has ordained many good men to the priesthood, that he has been a consistent foe of both abortion and capital punishment, that he has been a fearless advocate for the poor and the homeless, that he has lent the prestige of his office, often denied by his predecessors, to significant ecumenical efforts, particularly between Catholics and Jews, and that he has worked hard to improve race relations in a city where racism and Catholicism were too often seen as synonymous.

When I told some colleagues that I, a conspicuous Protestant, thought I should say a word in this sulfurous climate on behalf of a brother cleric, I was advised against it and told that every angry Catholic and militant secularist in town, not to mention the unbridled forces of the city media, would be against me.

The question was sharply put: ''Why would you support a man who has lost all support?'' The answer is simple, at least in my profession: ''Because he needs it.''

I cannot imagine what breakfast at the cardinal's residence on Lake Street must be like, with the table laid with the morning edition of the local papers. The news is bad enough, but when columnists and editorial writers weigh in with their shrill characterizations and cries for arch-episcopal blood, one cannot help but empathize just a bit with the Nixon-like figure who is damned at every turn.

Those who not long ago were pleased to be pictured with the cardinal, kissing his ring and attending his charitable events and proud to be known as archdiocesan insiders, now, like the disciples on Maunday Thursday, have forsaken him and fled. If a public figure is treated like Nixon, we shouldn't be surprised if he behaves like Nixon, to whom Norman Cousins, in The Daily Telegraph of July 17, 1979, ascribed the motto: ''If two wrongs don't make a right, try a third.''

It is not for me to second-guess the proceedings now wending their way through the courts. It does not, however, seem likely that the remarkably impatient Judge Constance Sweeney will be the most sympathetic justice before whom the case against the archdiocese can be heard, and that is a lamentable commentary on the judiciary.

It is equally difficult to imagine that a jury of impartial citizens can be empaneled within the jurisdiction in which the cardinal resides. Certainly the cardinal and the powers that be within the church have made a terrible mess of things, but the civil adjudication of this mess has not been helped by a climate of hysteria and manipulation that has been created and sustained now for nearly a year.

Where we might have hoped for a level of calm analysis and civic, even civil, discussion of the case in all of its humanity and complexity, we have been given little more than banner headlines, orchestrated press conferences, serial fascination with priestly deviancy, and plaintiff strategy. At the risk of an even further trivialization of everybody's pain, the whole thing begins to sound like Gilbert and Sullivan's ''Trial by Jury,'' where it is clear that poor Edmund the defendant hasn't a chance. What is funny in ''Trial by Jury'' is tragic in Boston.

''Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?'' (Who guards the guardians?) This is the question posed long ago by Juvenal, which to this day is often asked in cases of public trust. Surely such a question could be put to those in the archdiocese who were charged with guarding the souls of the young faithful and who so wickedly abused that trust. We know that. The question now is about who will protect us from those people who fail to use their powers wisely in the maintenance of a free and rational climate for discourse and debate.

When lawyers, the courts, and the media all seem complicit in the cycle of vengeance and blood and no closure short of decapitation seems acceptable, then we have reason to worry about the climate for justice, mercy, and charity, and Salem in 1692 seems not so far removed in moral climate from Boston in 2002.

Advent in the Christian calendar is the season of justice, mercy, and charity. Is it too much to wish for a little more of each as this sordid story with its lay and clerical victims makes its way to its conclusion? In what surely must be the antepenultimate phase of the cardinal's reign, can we not extend to him the remembrance of his good deeds, the dignity of his own amply expressed contrition, and the charity that allows him, like every sinner, the opportunity for amendment of life in the discharge of his pastoral office as long as it is his?

This is not a matter of clerical deference but of human decency. The cardinal, when all is said and done, is one of us, a fellow citizen from whom we have received much, and for his sake and ours we cannot simply sacrifice him upon the altar of expediency.

What is at stake here is not simply the future of one man, or of the whole church, or of pending legal matters. What is at stake is how we create and sustain a climate within which moral outrage and humane discourse can coexist in a civil society.

So far, we have not done very well. My Advent hope for the cardinal, and for the rest of us, is that we keep on trying, and this time hope to get it right.

The Rev. Peter J. Gomes is Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church at Harvard University.

This story ran on page A39 of the Boston Globe on 12/13/2002.
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