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Cardinal's bad judgment

HE IS BACK, commenting on the legacy of a pontiff. From Boston, it is difficult to hear Cardinal Bernard Law's voice and not think about promise unfulfilled, ambition derailed, and accountability deferred.

Law once told friends his goal was to become the first American pope. For a long time, his career path kept pace with this lofty ambition, granting him stature as one of America's premier Catholic power brokers. Then the clergy sexual abuse crisis engulfed the Boston archdiocese. After months of revelations about Law's failure to remove sexually abusive priests from ministry, he was forced to resign.

However, Law was not demoted but eventually reassigned to Rome, where he was named archpriest of one of the four basilicas under Vatican direction. This relatively soft landing was not appreciated or understood by victims of priestly sexual abuse nor by others who questioned the justness of his reward.

Law departed Boston without ever projecting understanding of the pain and ugliness connected to the saga of priests as sexual predators and the role he played as enabler. He still lacks the ability to project such understanding, as demonstrated by his recent appearance on ''This Week with George Stephanopoulos."

Citing the opportunity Law had in Rome to reflect on the sexual abuse scandal, Stephanopoulos asked: ''Looking back, do you think there's anything more you could have done?"

Replied Law: ''You know, I don't think that this is a time to be reflecting on that issue."

A more humble man might have resisted the national television spotlight in the first place, knowing his presence would prompt a revisiting of the controversy. A more forthright man might have taken the opportunity to acknowledge that his complicity and mishandling of the matter helped undercut the positive legacy of John Paul II.

And a man more in touch with the legacy he left behind would know this is an appropriate time for church leaders to reflect ''on that issue." Reflecting on it means choosing a path that keeps history from repeating itself.

In Boston, Law came to personify the wedge between the laity and church leadership, a wedge that his successor, Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley still works to repair.

After Law left, O'Malley quickly settled hundreds of sex abuse cases but faced criticism over a reconfiguration plan that called for the closure or consolidation of 83 parishes. The reconfiguration was necessary, he said, due to a shortage of priests and a fiscal crisis caused in part by the abuse scandal.

Confronting unexpectedly strong resistance to his efforts to close those parishes, O'Malley recently agreed to fully reopen a closed parish in Weymouth and to partially reopen a closed parish in Sudbury. Parishioners greeted the reopening of St. Albert the Great in Weymouth with joy but still expressed sadness over the decision that a popular priest, the Rev. Ronald D. Coyne, would not be reassigned to the parish.

Many believe that Coyne, an outspoken and progressive priest, is being punished. During the sexual abuse crisis, Coyne was one of 58 priests who signed a letter calling for Law's resignation. This is just one illustration of the skepticism and distrust that remain very much part of Law's legacy here.

Catholics are moving on, as they should. Attendance at Sunday Mass is said to be close to where it was before the scandal. There are new schisms to confront over issues such as gay marriage and stem cell research. But Law's legacy -- the schism he created -- was not over ideology or doctrine. It was a product of human arrogance and error. It went unchecked far too long because it came cloaked in cardinal's garb.

Law used the power of his position to protect the church from scandal rather than protect children from abuse. Ultimately, that choice created a larger scandal for the church that entrusted him with so much authority.

To err is human, to forgive, divine. Even so, Law's role as commentator on the death of Pope John Paul II is jarring. It sends a dispiriting message about his own inability to see what his actions brought about. It also raises questions about the determination of the Catholic hierarchy to ensure that such scandal and coverup do not reoccur.

Law, meanwhile, remains a cardinal in good standing, eligible to vote for a new pope. How does he cast it without contemplating promise unfulfilled, ambition derailed, and accountability deferred?

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is

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