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Spotlight Report

  Joan Vennochi  

The boys can't fix this one for Cardinal Law


How bizarre, yet typical. Cardinal Bernard Law is reaching out to "prominent Catholics" for counsel over how to stem the crisis over clergy sexual abuse. Why not reach out to ordinary ones? They were the ones abused by his priests. They are the ones outraged by the extent of his coverup.

Like Richard Nixon during Watergate or Gary Condit during the still unsolved Chandragate, Law is in the bunker. From there, he consults with a small circle of business executives and politicians, the male elite who run the city's institutes of commerce and government. From there, he comes up with a public relations strategy and a plan that seems to include pressuring the victims' families into settling their cases.

Where are the mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, sisters, and brothers who could tell the cardinal of their revulsion over his decision to protect priests instead of children?

Law's Kitchen Cabinet of "prominent Catholics," as described by the Globe, are Boston's fix-it boys. But try as they might, the fix-it boys can't fix things for Law. Not this time. This time, there is no one to squeeze except the people. And the people are too hurt and disgusted to be flattered, wooed, or seduced by public relations and advertising.

Unlike the fix-it boys, the people don't care about getting their pictures taken with the cardinal at a fancy fund-raiser. They care about going to a church they can still believe in, run by church leaders whose judgment they can trust.

Despite the onslaught of scandalous news about sexual abuse by priests, the people still pray, go to church on Sunday, and put their money in the collection basket. But they are mad and sad as they do it, and with good reason.

It is sad when a priest who celebrates a weekly Children's Mass worries about how it will look if he is alone with a small boy for even a short time and so begs the boy's mother to walk with them. It is sad when a child's first reconciliation must take place out in the open rather than in the usual small room off the altar to allay parishioners' fears of what might go on behind closed doors.

By hiding the truth for so long about some priests who abused children, Law hurt all priests. And the people are as mad about the wrongful tarnishing of the reputations of the good priests as they are about the wrongdoing of the bad ones.

To understand this, the cardinal doesn't need advice from so-called "prominent Catholics" like Jack Connors, Bob Popeo, John Harrington, Bill Bulger, Tom O'Neill, Kevin Phelan, and John Hamill. Indeed, the idea of this well-connected group sitting together in a room trying to come up with a public relations strategy to outrun a bad news cycle is another outrage in a totally outrageous sequence of events in the Archdiocese of Boston. Even more offensive is the idea that Popeo and another prominent lawyer in town, Jeffrey B. Rudman, are trying to hasten Law's stated goal of reaching a settlement with the victims.

Do Law and his advisers really think they can repackage a disgraced cardinal the way they might try repackaging a bad-tasting cereal? And would any of those men be willing to try if any of the victims of a pedophile priest were named Connors, Popeo, Harrington, Bulger, O'Neill, Phelan, or Hamill?

The facts about clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church are ugly, and there's no running away from them. No amount of spin can negate it. If Law had any interest in healing the church, not just his image, he would be reaching out to those Catholics who try to stay connected even as a cardinal like Law does everything he can to disconnect them.

Instead of meeting with "prominent Catholics," he should be reaching out to victims and their families. He should get out of the bunker and into the real world of parishes across the archdiocese. He should stop reading statements from the pulpit and start listening to everyday Catholics, the men and women who run the choirs and CCD classes, make sure there are enough angel's wings for the Christmas Eve pageants, and supervise the weekly doughnut and coffee hours after Sunday Mass.

A Rose Garden strategy is tempting for presidents and cardinals. But a politician knows that losing touch with the people is ultimately dangerous. The same is true for cardinals. A cardinal does not need votes, but he does need loyalty. Without it, he and the flock drift helplessly and hopelessly apart.

Rome may not care, but the people do.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is

This story ran on page A17 of the Boston Globe on 2/21/2002.
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