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Priests and Parishioners Urge Law to Step Down

Dec 12, 2002 | Washington Post With Cardinal Bernard F. Law in Rome this week, the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston has broken into open rebellion against his 18-year reign, as many priests and laypeople who supported Law through months of scandal are now urging him to step aside.

The crisis of confidence in Law's leadership, which began in January with the court-ordered release of documents on his coddling of pedophile priests, has been reignited recently by the release of thousands more pages from church archives.

The latest files, made public today, detail alleged misconduct by 11 priests, including one who molested a teenage boy on 21 consecutive nights during a cross-country trip in a Winnebago; another who used cocaine and downloaded child pornography from the Internet; and a third who molested at least 10 boys during "Teen Encounter" weekends at his parish.

Public indignation also was palpable today when the Rev. Paul Shanley, one of the central figures in the scandal, brushed past television cameras and protesters chanting "Pervert!" as he walked out of the Middlesex County Courthouse on $300,000 bail. Shanley pleaded not guilty in June to raping and sexually assaulting four boys in a suburban Boston church.

Unlike in the past, no politicians, business leaders or other public figures have stepped forward to defend Law since he slipped away over the weekend for an unpublicized visit to the Vatican to discuss the archdiocese's possible bankruptcy and, perhaps, his own future.

Voice of the Faithful, a lay group that describes itself as devoted to the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church, had been reluctant to criticize Law for most of this year. But its leaders voted this evening to call for his departure.

"What we do tonight, we do with a heavy heart," the group's president, James E. Post, said in remarks to more than 100 people at a parish in the suburb of Newton.

Jean Brennan, 70, a Voice of the Faithful member and mother of seven from Bridgewater, Mass., said the latest revelations were a turning point "the first time I felt ashamed to be a Catholic."

In a letter approved at the meeting, Post said "continued revelations that the Archbishop of Boston engaged in a pervasive pattern of behavior to conceal and cover up these evil actions" have caused many Catholics to lose trust in Law and left the archdiocese in "a state of administrative and moral paralysis."

For the first time, large numbers of Boston area priests also are publicly seeking Law's resignation. In a letter delivered to the cardinal's residence on Monday, 58 priests urged him to step down for the sake of the church, and more than a dozen others have since sought to add their signatures to the letter.

"That's a real kicker," said Boston College historian Thomas H. O'Connor. "The one thing that an archbishop or bishop can count on are his priests. In many respects, the priests are his family."

Raymond Flynn, an ex-mayor of Boston and former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, said the scandal has done more damage to Boston than the racially charged busing crisis in the 1970s or the 1989 case in which Charles Stuart told police a black carjacker murdered his pregnant wife. Evidence eventually implicated Stuart himself, but not until after police had gone on a manhunt in the city's black neighborhoods and made a wrongful arrest.

"The city is really polarized and divided, more so than at any time in my experience," Flynn said. Though he is one of the few public figures who continues to believe that Law should stay on, Flynn predicted that the priests' letter would be a factor in the Vatican's decision-making.

The Rev. Robert Bullock, head of the Boston Priests' Forum, which represents about 250 of the 900 active priests in the archdiocese, said no large group of U.S. priests has ever rebelled in such a manner. But, he said, Law's position "has become increasingly untenable."

At the Vatican, meanwhile, Law was awaiting a meeting with Pope John Paul II, which officials said could come as early as Thursday. "The conversation is still ongoing," said the Rev. Christopher Coyne, Law's spokesman. "The cardinal is doing fine, working away at talking about diverse issues related to the sexual abuse crisis."

There has been rising speculation among Vatican experts this week that the pope might ask for Law's resignation, move him to a senior post in Rome or name a coadjutor bishop of Boston. A coadjutor is a designated successor who serves alongside a senior prelate, usually in cases of failing health.

Throughout the past year, however, Law has steadfastly resisted calls for his resignation, arguing that he should stay on to see the archdiocese through its legal and financial troubles.

Just a month ago, it appeared that he had weathered the worst of them. He had scuttled an approximately $30 million settlement with 86 victims of the Rev. John Geoghan, the pedophile priest whose case triggered the scandal, and emerged with a new agreement for $10 million. The state attorney general, who is pursuing a grand jury investigation of the archdiocese, said state laws would not support a criminal indictment of Law or other church leaders.

After a series of high-profile apologies to sexual abuse victims, Law took a prominent role in the November meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington. He also held his first meeting with Voice of the Faithful and listened to the concerns of Boston area priests.

But then came two severe setbacks: a public airing of the possibility that the archdiocese might have to seek Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and a judge's decision to force the church to hand over its files on sexual misconduct to the plaintiffs in civil lawsuits against Shanley.

In addition, Law barred a group of priests from meeting at a suburban parish to consider withholding support from his $300 million fundraising campaign. Those priests were among the authors of the letter calling for his resignation.

Although plaintiffs' lawyers have said they believe the talk about bankruptcy is a bluff, it outraged many Boston Catholics because it signaled a refusal to take full responsibility for damages, according to Stephen J. Pope, a Boston College theologian.

"Right now, Cardinal Law would have trouble showing up to a First Communion," Pope said.

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