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Spotlight Report

  William J. Bennett  

Public outcry is justified - Law must go


POPE JOHN PAUL II will wrap up his summit with American cardinals today on the priest sexual abuse scandals. That the pope has called for this meeting is a sure sign that he has recognized the dire straits in which the American Catholic Church leadership is, even if some members of that leadership do not.

One leader who does not seem to recognize his own predicament is Boston's Cardinal Bernard F. Law. Law has come under fire for his handling of sexual abuse cases for weeks. The impetus for much of this criticism was his handling of the case of John Geoghan. Recently, however, more troubling facts have come to light.

Paul Shanley, a longtime priest in the Boston area, had a string of sexual abuse charges dating back to the 1960s, some of which he even admitted.

Shanley was also a vocal proponent of ''man-boy sex'' at meetings of an organization that would become the North American Man-Boy Love Association. And yet, as The Boston Globe summarized, Law ''promoted [Shanley] to pastor of a Newton church, gave him a clean bill of health to minister to Catholics in California, and endorsed his running a Catholic hotel in New York despite three decades of sexual abuse allegations against Shanley.''

Despite calls to resign, the cardinal has announced that he will continue to serve in his position ''as long as God gives me the opportunity.'' Should he? Should a priest who not only protected Shanley but indeed praised his ''impressive record'' and ''priestly care and ministry'' (in 1997) continue to serve as head of one of the nation's most prominent bishoprics?

In a word, no. The moral credibility of the church is compromised by leaders whose own credibility is so severely damaged. We know that priests and bishops are not saints. We do not expect them to be perfect, to discharge their duties flawlessly.

But there are minimal standards of behavior that we can expect and indeed demand. They include not sheltering blatant or chronic sexual abusers or placing them in positions where they can again prey upon innocent children and young men.

Canon law permits the removal of a parish priest by a bishop for several reasons, including simply for being ''ineffective.'' It also specifies other conditions: ''a manner of acting which causes grave harm or disturbance,'' ''the loss of ... good name among upright and serious parishioners,'' and ''bad administration of temporal goods with grave harm to the church.''

These are for parish priests, of course, but one would expect that bishops would be held to equally high standards. And canon law further states that a bishop who ''has become unsuited for the fulfillment of his office is earnestly requested to offer his resignation from office'' - whether it be for ''illness or some other grave reason.''

Some have argued that removing Law now will lead to the impression that he was removed because of the public outcry, thus opening up the potential for future demands for resignations. But it is not the fact of the public outcry that is important. What matters, rather, is that the public outcry is justified. The slate must be made clean.

Along with a change in personnel must be a change in policies. The Vatican will likely not ''demand'' a uniform national policy on sexual abuse; it is more likely we will see such a policy developed at the annual meeting of the US bishops in June.

Much has (justifiably) been made of the question of homosexuality, for the evidence is that the majority of cases of clerical sexual abuse involve adolescent males.

I believe that every diocese and every religious order must screen all seminarians for an ability to live the celibate life. Each diocese and order should be able to determine for itself the question of whether to admit men with homosexual orientations. But every diocese and every order should enact a policy of zero tolerance for breaking the vow of celibacy - especially when it involves a minor - whether it is a heterosexual or homosexual matter.

But in the end, good policy means nothing without strong leaders in whom the people of the church have faith. And that is why, as Cardinal Law faces a deposition in the Shanley case in June, it is time for a change in Boston, just as it is time for a change in the way in which the Catholic Church handles allegations of sexual abuse and in which it ordains its priests.

In foreign policy, moral clarity is important and helpful. In the Catholic Church, it is the mission.

William J. Bennett is co-director of Empower America. His latest book is ''Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism.''

This story ran on page A21 of the Boston Globe on 4/24/2002.
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