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Spotlight Report

A resignation seen less likely to lead to others

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 12/13/2002

As the world waits to see whether Pope John Paul II today will remove scandal-scarred Cardinal Bernard F. Law as archbishop of Boston, US church specialists say they are growing less concerned that Law's ouster would trigger demands for the removal of other American bishops.

The specialists say that last week's incendiary revelations of clerical misconduct in Boston, along with the unprecedented explosion of anger among laypeople and priests in Boston, are without parallel, even as many other dioceses face clergy sex abuse scandals of their own.

''The case could have been made six months ago that, while the most serious problem was in Boston, a number of other dioceses were almost as bad, but as time has gone on it's become more and more clear that Boston is the rare wine bottle, and that it has problems the enormity of which cannot be rivaled anywhere else in the country,'' said William A. Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. ''The Vatican may have thought last spring that if Law goes, what about the others, but I think that's less probable today.''

A variety of other prominent figures in American Catholic life agreed.

''One of the things that may in the past have prevented Cardinal Law's resignation from being offered or accepted was the ripple effect or domino effect - the sense that other bishops, especially his auxiliary bishops who are now elsewhere would also have to resign,'' said R. Scott Appleby, a Notre Dame historian and former director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism. ''But now the Boston crisis has moved to a level that other dioceses are not at, and it's not automatic that his resignation would be linked to others. Cardinal Law now stands alone in the level of controversy and public dishonor in which he is held.''

Church officials are clearly eager to contain the damage of the revelations in Boston and other troubled dioceses. On Tuesday, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a statement declaring that the admission by the Manchester, N.H., diocese that it had likely violated child endangerment statutes did not reflect on the larger church.

''The errors of specific persons, at specific times and places which may have endangered children, cannot be attributed to the church as a whole,'' Gregory said.

Bishops, academics, and others who monitor the church in the United States are closely following the Boston situation. Many are increasingly less concerned about the impact of Law's possible resignation, and more concerned about the ramifications of a possible bankruptcy filing by the Archdiocese of Boston.

''The situation in Boston is being watched by everybody who has at heart the future of the Catholic Church in America, and it obviously has ramifications for the universal church,'' said the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things, a journal on religion and public life. ''There's no doubt that what's happening in Boston, because of its historic importance to Catholicism and American history, is going to have very widespread and long-term consequences.''

Neuhaus, like others, said he came to see Boston's crisis as unique in its severity. ''To the best of my knowledge there is no major diocese as riddled with problems of real or apparent misgovernance as severe of those of Boston.''

But Neuhaus said a bankruptcy filing ''would have a spillover effect - it will have the effect of causing people to think of the archdiocese as an institution that's on the ropes, and that would have an enormously crippling effect on the church's mission.''

Donohue, of the Catholic League, said bankruptcy ''would be an absolute disaster for the Catholic Church, because it would beckon in the hand of the state, and the encroachment of the state on the church is unprecedented and has implications which are significant for all religions.''

Appleby said a bankruptcy filing would erase some of the gains the church has made over the last millennium in winning independence from government control.

''The Roman Catholic Church has at least a 1,000-year history of church-state and church-empire struggles, and therefore a wariness of turning over whatever rights it has secured to the state,'' Appleby said. ''Bankruptcy would lead to a judge having control over assets and decision making, and once that precedent is set, it really would reconfigure the possibilities of church-state relations in the US.''

Appleby argued that bankruptcy would also mark the ultimate admission of guilt by the church.

''The archdiocese would be claiming, publicly and legally, that the flaws in its leadership are so profound that it has crippled the financial state of the archdiocese,'' he said. ''This would be an explicit acknowledgment that the successors of the apostles have failed in an egregious manner, and for the church to do that would be astounding.''

Law has been in Rome since Sunday, holding a series of meetings with Vatican officials about the crisis facing the archdiocese. Neither Vatican officials nor Law's spokespeople have released any details of his trip, but he is widely reported to be talking about several possible solutions to the crisis, including the declaration of bankruptcy or his own resignation.

''It's harder to get information out of the Vatican than out of the CIA,'' said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, editor of America, a Jesuit weekly. ''They don't make public discussions. They only make public decisions.''

Reese said a bankruptcy filing would dramatically affect the handling of sex abuse cases throughout the church.

''First, it would send a signal to lawyers and victims that the church is not a bottomless pocket, and that there are limits to what the church can pay out in these settlements,'' he said. ''Second, all the church's finances would be absolutely public, which many people are encouraging. And third, this could be quite scary for other people who have financial claims on the diocese, such as employees who might lose their jobs.''

Several scholars said the impact of a Law resignation on other bishops would depend on whether the news media and lawyers focus as intensely on the handling of sexual abuse allegations in other dioceses as they did in Boston.

''It all depends on whether there'd be another diocese in which the same level of horror would come up - so far I haven't seen anything close to the level of outrage that there is in Boston,'' said Jon Nilson, the president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and an associate professor of theology at Loyola University Chicago. ''But it would be difficult to do damage control on this, or to see it as anything other than a powerful archbishop being driven from office, and I think that just gives Rome the vapors.''

Beyond the question of who administers and leads the Archdiocese of Boston, Law's resignation would leave open the question of whether there are deeper spiritual problems plaguing the Catholic Church. Many critics, from the left and right, believe the sex abuse crisis has revealed deep problems within the priesthood.

''We can sometimes be too shortsighted in simply seeing the political or legal aspects of this issue, and overlook the profound spiritual renewal that is needed at this point,'' said the Rev. Matthew L. Lamb, a professor of theology at Boston College. ''Ultimately, the only transformation that's going to come about that will really make a difference is when all Catholics, and all Christians, realize their call to holiness.''

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A58 of the Boston Globe on 12/13/2002.
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