The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


Not Law, but Law-ism

By Thomas Oliphant, 5/12/2002

IN ONE OF the rare moments when Cardinal Bernard F. Law said last week under oath that he could remember something important about his job, he drew the appropriate boundaries for the wreckage he has caused.

Asked a sympathetic softball by William Gordon, the lawyer for the victims of the unimaginable horror of child molestation - whether this mother of all crises of confidence hadn't been ''a source of profound pain for you and for the whole church'' - the cardinal replied: ''Absolutely. And for all of society.''

On another occasion, speaking of a press release, Cardinal Law said that it had been issued ''so that the facts would be out before the public.''

This is not, in other words, a Catholic issue. It concerns everyone, and not simply because serious, horrific crimes against persons and the administration of justice are involved.

This concerns everyone because few institutions are as important to all of us as the Roman Catholic Church. Its moral authority in secular society is gigantic, its enormous good works are life itself for millions of families and most especially the poor, and its positive impact on education, culture, and public health is immeasurable. Its political voice is crucial to our civic society and provides inspiration as well as insight for conservatives and liberals of all faiths.

The argument that people who aren't Catholic should shut up at a time like this is fatuous, especially now that the cardinal has entered the civil, legal, realm at a court's order. I can think of more than 3,000 reasons most of us have been insisting that the leaders of Islam clearly separate themselves from the extremists in their midst. Where the safety of kids under adult supervision is involved, including non-Catholics in schools and other institutions, the interest of society as a whole is obvious.

This is far more than a sex scandal, however. It is a leadership crisis threatening the foundation of credibility for one of the most important institutions in this country, and it cries out for immediate, dramatic actions.

Cardinal Law's departure from Boston would qualify for starters, but the calls for it have an unseemly, simplistic quality. He should be neither symbol nor token, for the rot has spread across the country, if not the world. The leadership crisis is not so much about Law as it is Law-ism - best defined by its opposite.

There was a pretty awful scandal in the nation's capital a decade ago - and a totally different response. Under the strong leadership of then Cardinal James Hickey, the old habit of going to prominent lawyers to negotiate hushed-up settlements ended. In its place, the archdiocese has followed a stringent policy that includes immediate reporting of accusations to the police, instant suspension of anyone accused of child sexual abuse, permanent removal of anyone known to have committed such a crime, and complete transparency.

This policy has been reinforced since the arrival nearly 18 months ago of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who had put similar policies in place during his previous service in Newark, and who emerged as a credible spokesman for the church during the extraordinary but disappointing meetings with Pope John Paul II last month. The law laid down by Cardinal Hickey was understood by all who worked under him; indeed, a top aide during his time here, Bishop William Lori, is now implementing these ideas in Bridgeport, Conn., trying to clean up a Law-like mess left by Cardinal Edward Egan, whose current authority in New York is gravely compromised.

Law-ism is more than just shuttling pedophiles among parishes or keeping crimes hushed up. It is more than the pursuit of narrow and crude legal strategies to limit liability and save money, and it is more than the sworn assertion of no memory by a man famous for his detailed involvement in matters large and small. As in any leadership crisis, Law-ism is at its core the protection of self and of financial resources at the direct expense of the mission of the organization, which includes the protection of the most vulnerable human beings.

The departure of Cardinal Law wouldn't scratch the surface. The problem is not only in New York and Los Angeles; it is also sad but true that five of the cardinal's top aides over the years, the people on whom he said he relied when the rot began to spread, have since been promoted to run archdiocese in Brooklyn, suburban New York, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, and Louisiana.

Leadership crises are solved not just by new leaders but also by new policies and a fresh, open, and generous stance toward the past. Meanwhile, the voice of this great church is silent when it is needed most; Catholic Charities is actually laying off employees.

For all our sakes, this has to stop, and non-Catholics must make common cause with the hardy souls fighting for real change on the inside. Now.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is

This story ran on page E7 of the Boston Globe on 5/12/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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