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JOAN VENNOCHI

Reality sets in -- Rome rules Boston

BOSTON AREA Catholics are starting to wake up from a pleasant if naive dream that a humble monk will lead them out of the dark years of the clergy sexual abuse scandal to the promised land.

Under Archbishop Sean O'Malley, everything is different and everything is exactly the same. In some quarters, the disappointment is so keen, it raises questions: Who, really, is in charge? Is Cardinal Bernard F. Law, the man who aided and covered up the scandal, still calling the shots from Rome?

Two years ago, O'Malley was embraced as the new leader of the Boston archdiocese. The friar known for his brown robe, sandals, and prayerful humility would supposedly end the arrogant -- and tragic for its victims -- reign of his predecessor. ''The leadership promised hasn't been delivered . . . He is not running the show," Jack Connors Jr., a prominent member of Boston's Irish Catholic establishment, now says of O'Malley.

The mess, fiscal and psychological, that Law left behind did not make it easy for his successor. Local Catholics rebelled at every turn against parish and school closings he insisted were necessary in the aftermath of the scandal. The ouster of the Rev. Walter Cuenin as pastor of Our Lady, Help of Christians parish in Newton, is the latest controversy to rock the archdiocese and increase the bitterness toward O'Malley.

Cuenin's use of a parish-funded, parish-approved lease car was supposedly the basis for what was billed as O'Malley's decision to yank him for ''financial improprieties." Speculation as to the real motivation includes Cuenin's support for gays and his past criticism of Law. He was one of 58 priests in the Boston area who urged Law to resign. Cuenin's replacement is the Rev. Christopher Coyne, Law's chief spokesman during the abuse scandal.

Rome always rules. So it was always wishful thinking to believe O'Malley was an independent church executive who could do what Boston's liberal Catholic elite want. Like every Roman Catholic leader, he answers to Rome.

Under the new pope, the ideological right controls the church. One major fault line with the left involves homosexuality. The tremors from gay-related issues can be felt from Rome to Massachusetts. Pope Benedict XVI is considering a new Vatican policy indicating that gay men should not be ordained as Catholic priests. The local bishop of Worcester pulled a priest from the altar after he printed an item in the parish bulletin that challenged a proposed ban on gay marriage. Cuenin, the deposed pastor, publicly questioned the church's teaching on homosexuality and its ban on the ordination of women priests.

But, apart from ideological issues, the idea that Law could continue to rule as shadow head of the Boston archdiocese is offensive to local Catholics who remain outraged by his role in the clergy sexual abuse scandal. ''There is no forgiveness when it comes to the legacy of Cardinal Law," says Connors. ''That was something once attributed to gangs of criminals, not gangs of clergy."

O'Malley has retained holdovers from Law's regime such as Bishop Richard Lennon and Chancellor David Smith. And that adds to the suspicion that the cardinal who was banished from Boston is still running the show from the Vatican basilica over which he now presides. Either O'Malley is making unpopular decisions on his own, or Law, through his holdovers, is telling him what to do. Neither possibility endears him to wealthy, influential Catholics such as Connors. He calls O'Malley, ''a good man, a prayerful man, who, I have the feeling would be happier working for the poorest of the poor."

The Boston archdiocese is a microcosm of the bigger struggle within the Catholic Church. But just like liberal Democrats, liberal Catholics have little choice; in fact they have less. George W. Bush is president until the next election; Benedict XVI is pope for life. Disaffected Catholics can close their wallets and stay away from church, but if they expect to be missed, they are mistaken. To the victor, go the spoils, in politics and religion.

Whether willing or unwilling, O'Malley is a pawn in a gigantic ideological struggle.

Sadly for Boston, it leaves a disgraced cardinal in position to carry out a dual agenda: conservatism and revenge. That means the nightmare continues for Law's victims and those brave souls who stood up to him.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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