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No 'Lightning Rod,' But A Storm

Cardinal Law's Resignation Appears Unlikely to End Problems for Church

Dec 15, 2002 | Washington Post

It's the rare agreement that binds the head of an association of Roman Catholic priests, the founder of a sexual abuse victims group and the spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Boston. But all use the same two words to describe Cardinal Bernard F. Law: lightning rod.

So what happens when that lightning rod is removed? Might the resignation of this powerful American Catholic leader signal that the storm that has raged throughout the Catholic Church is near an end?

That is unlikely. While some priests, academics and lay Catholics suggested Law's departure might be a time for "healing," many more foresaw dark clouds.

"The problems that have come to sensational light speak to an infidelity to the church's basic teachings," said the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor in chief of the New York-based conservative Catholic journal First Things. "These problems are going to be with us for a very long time."

Barbara Blaine, who was molested by a priest as a teenager and founded the 4,300-strong Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, cautioned against optimism. "When Nixon resigned, no one naively thought: 'Now politics will be cleaner,' " she said. "No one should assume Law's removal will painlessly usher in a new day."

Even Donna M. Morrissey, Law's loyal spokeswoman, sees no end to scandal. "I don't think," she said, "that this is going to end in our lifetime."

Law's resignation, say dozens of Catholics, emphasizes the national scope of the crisis afflicting the church. A priest in Denver talked of trying to restore the confidence of his congregants. A Catholic activist in Chicago said Law's decision was just a Band-Aid. A devout Catholic in Tulsa said heads need to roll.

"There is culpability, and we as Catholics want to know who was responsible," said Mary Patterson of Tulsa, whose three children attended Catholic school. "We have to value children and members more than we value saving face."

If anything, the national crisis may deepen. The Boston archdiocese still teeters on the edge of bankruptcy, alleged victims continue to bring their lawsuits and church lawyers still wage a no-holds-barred defense. Now attention shifts to dioceses as far-flung as California, where some experts foresee the church's next great financial and moral crisis.

California has lifted its statute of limitations for one year, a move that will allow hundreds of alleged victims of clergy sex abuse to have their day in court. Many of the cases stretch to the 1960s and 1970s.

In Wisconsin, plaintiffs' lawyers have begun a campaign to overturn a 1995 Wisconsin Supreme Court decision that declared unconstitutional any judicial inquiry into the internal workings of a church. That ruling has effectively blocked victims' lawsuits in Wisconsin for the past seven years.

And legal problems haunt former members of Law's Boston brain trust. They have become bishops in New Orleans, Brooklyn and Long Island, N.Y., Manchester, N.H., and Green Bay, Wis. Now each faces dozens of lawsuits, alleging that they and their hierarchies turned a blind eye to charges of abuse in their dioceses.

The scandals, finally, have reignited a debate over the future of the church, echoing historic divisions over the role of the laity in church governance and the ordination of women and gays in the priesthood.

"We must realize that the problem is not just abusive priests but an insular church leadership," said Frank J. Macchiarola, president of St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., who agreed to let the reformist lay organization Voice of the Faithful meet at his college when the local diocese turned them away. "The church right now resembles a cancer victim who falls and breaks his leg. Just because the leg is healed, you can't assume the cancer is cured."

Reaction to the News

As news broke of Law's resignation, Christopher Fulchino, a young alleged victim of a sexually predatory Massachusetts priest, broke into tears. Law's departure, he suggested, might be the beginning of healing.

Whatever salve Law's leaving office might offer to individual Catholics, the crisis in the Boston archdiocese will not end so quickly. Law, 71, remains under subpoena in a grand jury investigation by an aggressive Catholic prosecutor, Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, who said last week that he has not ruled out attempting to bring criminal indictments against church leaders.

To win a conviction, however, Reilly must prove that it was the intent of Law or other church leaders to allow sexual abuse to occur. The state legislature recently passed laws making it a crime for an official to fail to protect a child from harm, but the more liberal standard of these laws cannot be applied retroactively.

Law and the archdiocese also remain defendants in hundreds of civil lawsuits. Law's spokeswoman has emphasized that the cardinal will return from Rome and fulfill his legal obligations, not least attending two depositions scheduled for this week.

The Archdiocese of Boston, the fourth largest in the nation, also faces a momentous decision: whether to file for bankruptcy protection. Most parishes are incorporated separately, and many valuable church assets are held by other corporations.

Some members of the archdiocese's financial committee suggested that with the cardinal gone, church leaders might reconsider talk of filing for bankruptcy. Jack Connors Sr., a Boston businessman who formerly advised Law, said that the principal motivation had been to avoid having Law give legal testimony every day for the next two years.

The decision on bankruptcy has broad national implications; lawyers for the church have suggested that dioceses in Stockton, Calif., Dallas and Santa Fe, N.M., might pursue this option. That worries plaintiff lawyers, as bankruptcy declarations could limit jury awards and lawyer fees.

Jeff Anderson has filed hundreds of claims and is among the most aggressive attorneys in the nation in pursuing the church. He says diocesan lawyers often hint they have the legal machinery of bankruptcy in place.

"We don't know to this day if it was a bluff card or not," Anderson said. "It's a daunting strategy [because] we're not interested in shutting them down; we're interested in cleaning them up."

Still, a Boston bankruptcy seems unlikely to stanch the flow of lawsuits, because the victims seek acknowledgment and apology perhaps as much as financial awards. Lawyer Mitchell Garabedian has represented scores of plaintiffs against the Boston archdiocese. For some, he said, Law's removal from office was "a right step in the healing process."

But for many more, he added, "it just doesn't matter. It's too little, too late."

Words of Renewal, Reform

Renewal and reform were much on the lips of Catholics last week, no matter their theological and political bent. The church may remain caught in the storm, but many Catholics seemed unwilling to wait for their hierarchy to sort it out.

Rosalind Sanders, 37, watched Law's decline and fall from her Chicago office with the Eighth Day Center for Justice, a Catholic peace and justice organization. Her personal faith is not shaken; her faith in the church hierarchy is another matter.

"It's only a Band-Aid. It's not the healing the church really needs," she said of the cardinal's resignation. "The hierarchical structure the church now operates under, which excludes women and the laity, needs to be transformed. Bishops can no longer operate with absolute authority."

In Tulsa, Janet Pagano, a member of a prominent Catholic family, regularly attends Holy Family Cathedral. She has not given up; she is just concerned.

"The church is not full of bad priests," she said. The fault "lies with the church hierarchy and how it has dealt with the problem."

Some conservative Catholics insist that renewal will be found when seminaries insist on a more rigorous adherence to celibacy and weed out the homosexual seminarians who, they said, stood at the center of many scandals.

"The great challenge of the church is to refocus on the mission and message of Jesus Christ," said Neuhaus of First Things magazine. "No more monkey business; no more looking the other way on church doctrine."

St. Francis College president Macchiarola agrees on very little with Neuhaus except this: The Catholic Church deserves leaders of a higher caliber of bravery.

"Look at Law and his cronies," he said. "There wasn't a courageous man in the bunch. And courage is what makes saints."

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