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Spotlight Report

  Adrian Walker  

Still out of touch


Inside the sanctuary, hierarchy commanded its traditional respect. Cardinal Bernard F. Law spoke softly, explained quietly, once again asked for the prayers of the faithful.

Outside the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, irreverence was the order of the day. Some said the ranks of protesters were slightly smaller than on some Sunday mornings, but remained vociferous.

So it goes -- this stunning tale of two churches, one taking its wisdom from the pulpit, the other venting righteous anger in the streets.

Even by the standards of the past dark months, yesterday was a bad day. The archdiocese has backed out of a deal with 86 survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of the Rev. John Geoghan, bringing anger to a fever pitch.

At the same time, it was the Sunday of the Cardinal's Appeal, an annual pitch to raise as much as $16 million for diocesan programs. Well-timed it was not.

The protests began early, the disenfranchised laity holding the now familiar signs calling for Law to resign, to get out. Some demanded his passport be lifted to keep the cardinal from evading deposition. Their anger was stoked, of course, by Friday's announcement that the archdiocese will not honor its agreement in the Geoghan case.

Law has disowned responsibility for the decision, officially reached by the archdiocesan Finance Council. But from the pulpit yesterday, he declared "laudable" the panel's concern that the number of victims threatens to outpace the available pot of cash.

Obviously, there is nothing to laud about this. Whatever shred of credibility Law and his advisers had left evaporated Friday. They say they are looking at other options, but at this point that's like declaring that the check is in the mail.

If that's lost on the cardinal, there were plenty of people outside the Mass who were happy to make the point.

Joe Gallager of the Coalition of Concerned Catholics compared the church's strategy to union-busting and predicted that the archdiocese will now try to get victims to accept far smaller settlements.

"Just when you think it can't get any worse, they find a way to ratchet it up," Gallagher said. "Eighty-six survivor victims and family members thought they had a chance to move on. This isn't money they were going to use for a beach home. Basically, it's for lifetime therapy. Whatever small level of trust there was has been destroyed."

While that was the consensus outside, Law was expressing a far different take in the sanctuary. He spoke of reconciliation, healing, and peace. He invoked saints and heroes of the early church. He spoke of the trial he is enduring, and betrayal of trust.

He didn't have a lot to say about the victims, or about what comes next. He did express a wistful hope that the 86 victims who were revictimized by the church on Friday might someday be part of a deal with the other victims, whose ranks Law put in excess of 150. Others say it could reach 500 or more.

Law sounded, in short, like a leader who remains far out of touch with the people he's leading. After months of revelation upon revelation, can anyone be surprised that the number of victims is still going up? Does he have a clue?

For some, the spell still appears magical. Law is an inspired orator and he held many parishioners in thrall. But pleading for more cash was a great way to break the spell. Noting that the crisis would cut into fund-raising, he actually asked for "heroic" contributions from those still willing to give.

Surely some will dig deeply. But once again, the protesters seemed to hold the moral high ground. Platitudes were trumped by righteous indignation. The church has failed to protect its young; now it is failing even to keep its word. The moral bankruptcy of this cardinal was on very ugly display this weekend, and the people outside the sanctuary knew it.

Adrian Walker can be reached at

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 5/6/2002.
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