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Spotlight Report

  Joan Vennochi  

Archbishop in name only


Cardinal Bernard Law can stay or go as archbishop of boston. It really doesn't matter. Like Bill Clinton after Monica Lewinsky, he stands stripped of moral authority. He may cling to the office, but the power is gone. Most unfortunately for Law, Catholics -- not Catholic-bashers -- are reaching that conclusion.

At Sunday Mass, a children's choir sweetly sings, "And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen." Yet again and again, the church, represented by Law, led former priest and convicted pedophile John J. Geoghan into temptation. Instead of being delivered from evil, the children were delivered to it. A mother or father sits in the pew and thinks: The cardinal knew a priest was preying on children, and he protected the priest, not the children. Why?

As more cases of sexual abuse by priests come to light, Law still doesn't understand the anger over his handling of them.

Before reading his open letter to the archdiocese, he gave parents in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross an opportunity to take their children out of earshot. None did, the Globe reported. And why should they? If the subject of sexually abusive priests is now open for discussion in the Catholic Church, the children must be part of the dialogue. After all, they are the potential victims. They are the ones who must be warned that strangers are not the only people who can harm them; their parish priest can, too.

In the meantime, apologies for transferring a sexual predator from parish to parish and then trying to cover up those actions in court are not enough.

You reap what you sow. Catholics are raised in a church that sees no gray, just black or white. It is rigid, unyielding, and unwilling to compromise. It turns a deaf ear to members of the flock who beg to be heard. Now the flock is applying the same unyielding standard to a cardinal. Parishioners reared on the sacrament of penance may forgive. But they will not accept Law as a figure of moral authority, any more than Law would ever accept a divorced man or woman as a Catholic in good standing.

Law will no doubt try to ride out the tide of people turning against him. He never paid much attention to the people in the first place. His bigger problem is that in ever-parochial Boston, fallout from the Geoghan case spills out of the religious world and into the secular. Law's appearance at events like Thomas Menino's inaugural or Jane Swift's state of the state address seems strained and out of place. As he hovers in the background, an odd presence behind state and city politicians, his face is a reminder of all he and the church did wrong regarding Geoghan.

No political leader could escape ultimate responsibility and penalties for such complicity in wrongdoing. No chief executive could either. Why should Law?

It is no accident that Law took pains to pledge that no donations from parishioners would go to settle sexual abuse cases. "I can assure you that no monies from parish collections, the Cardinal's Appeal, or other fund-raising campaigns have been or will be used to settle cases," he said on Sunday.

Money is a fundamental basis of power in religion as it is in every other walk of life. Law's power in the past was a reflection of the deference and money given to him by the city's business leadership. The crux of that leadership is still Catholic by birth and tradition. Will the big donors continue to stand by the cardinal? Will they court him for their causes and events and show up for his?

Some probably will, because they are old enough to worry about going to hell if they abandon him. Fear of a miserable life after death is a still-strong legacy of Catholicism.

But in their hearts they will know this reality. When power is gone, it is gone, whether you are a lame-duck president, a lame-duck CEO, or a lame-duck cardinal. The trappings remain, but that raw and seductive ability to hold sway over others is no more. The truth knocks it out, like a wave dashing a sand castle.

"I do not believe that submitting my resignation to the Holy Father is the answer to the terrible scourge of sexual abuse of children by priests," Law told the people of his archdiocese.

In this case, what Law believes really doesn't matter. He may genuinely want to lead the archdiocese in its new zero-tolerance policy for sexual misconduct by priests. Sadly, the cardinal showed far too much tolerance for it in the past. He has no authority to lead the other way in the future.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is

This story ran on page A11 of the Boston Globe on 1/29/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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