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Spotlight Report

  A Boston Globe Editorial  

The cardinal's departure


CATHOLIC BISHOPS try to model themselves after the good shepherd evoked by Jesus in the Gospel of John. Cardinal Bernard F. Law, archbishop of Boston, understood this week that sometimes the wisest decision a shepherd can make is to leave his flock in better care.

''It is my fervent prayer that this action may help the Archdiocese of Boston to experience the healing, reconciliation, and unity which are so desperately needed,'' the cardinal said in a statement after Pope John Paul II accepted his resignation yesterday. His departure is a sad but necessary end to one chapter in the sex abuse scandal that has roiled the church and its community.

Law had become the central figure in a scandal of criminal abuse, denial, payoff, and coverup that resonates around the world. His leadership of the archdiocese has hindered the resolution of the many suits alleging sexual abuse by priests. It also kept many Catholics from feeling truly part of the church. And it deepened divisions between the archdiocesan leadership and many of its priests who have nothing to do with abuse.

But the factors contributing to this scandal are institutional as well as personal. Law was operating in a culture and tradition that reflexively placed the reputation of the church above the pain of victims.

The cardinal, in his statement, offered thanks to Jewish and other religious groups as well as public officials for the help they have given him since he became archbishop in 1984. This statement recalls Law's vigorous role in promoting Catholic-Jewish reconciliation and in espousing Catholic positions on issues of social justice.

While Law was reaching out to the wider community, he was not paying equal attention to the protection of Catholic children. He gave priority to the prerogatives of the clergy, even the sexual abusers, and to the reputation of the church. The result was a far greater scandal than he could have ever imagined when, eight months after he become archbishop, he assigned the abuser John J. Geoghan to St. Julia's in Weston.

The treatment of Geoghan foretold the similarly lenient handling of other priests who had records of abuse. They left in their wake hundreds of victims and thousands of pages of documents that reveal the full extent of the coverup. They also produced legal liabilities amounting to tens of millions of dollars, which the archdiocese needs to pay if it is to restore its credibility as a moral force.

The possibility that the archdiocese would file for bankruptcy instead of reaching settlements with victims was one of the reasons Law was in Rome this week. The Vatican is resisting bankruptcy, as it should. The church in Boston has great resources, and it is reasonable that some of these be sold to provide fair compensation for the victims. Bishop Richard G. Lennon, who temporarily assumes Law's responsibilities, will need to make a strong start on resolving the victims' lawsuits before the pope names a permanent replacement.

A new role in church matters for priests and lay Catholics is one of the healthy outcomes of this awful year. Had there been lay people helping make the decision about Geoghan and the other abusers, this scandal might never have happened. But Law was operating in a closed clerical culture that generally slighted the protection of children.

After the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, lay people assumed new responsibility in the church, but power over personnel and doctrine remains closely held by the hierarchy. The scandal in Boston has embittered, but also energized, many of the laity. Law's initial reluctance to meet with Voice of the Faithful, which was established in response to the crisis, suggests that he was uncomfortable with any but a rubber-stamp group.

''We are the teachers, the lectors, the eucharistic ministers,'' said one member of Voice of the Faithful member last week. She and others need to have a stronger voice in church decision making. Major changes will probably have to await action by the Vatican, but smaller steps toward greater respect and responsibility can be taken immediately.

Preoccupied by talk of bankruptcy and resignation, Law has yet to implement all the proposals of his Commission on the Protection of Children, which submitted its report in October. One of its key recommendations is the establishment of a predominantly lay board that would monitor the archdiocesan policy against sexual abuse. Lennon should make it a priority to put this recommendation into effect.

A letter urging Law's resignation signed by 58 priests was surely one of the precipitating events in his departure. Most of the signers were diocesan priests, and Law was their direct superior, to whom they had sworn obedience. It took great courage for them to sign the letter, but they understood from talking to parishioners that action was needed to begin a resolution of the crisis.

Many of the priests were prompted to act by the cardinal's expectation that they would soon begin fund-raising for his Promise for Tomorrow capital campaign. Weekly collections are off in many parishes, and Mass attendance has fallen. It would be folly to conduct a major fund-raising initiative until the great majority of the abuse cases are settled and a permanent archbishop is in place.

The Vatican II changes reflected an awareness that lay people deserve more responsibilities than they were traditionally given in the Catholic Church. Lay people have accepted new roles as religious education teachers and ministers at Mass; they are ready for greater duties.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, ''I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep and my sheep know me.'' Cardinal Law did not fully grasp the criminality of a few of his priests. His successor ought to better value the abilities of his flock - the lay people of the Boston Archdiocese.

This story ran on page A22 of the Boston Globe on 12/14/2002.
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