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Scandal Won't Depart With Law

Ingrained Denial and Secrecy Likely To Persist Despite Cardinal's Resignation

Dec 16, 2002 | The Charlotte Observer

Barbara Blaine has been waiting for months for Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston to resign. For Blaine, founder of the nation's largest abuse survivors' group, Law was the living and breathing failure of the Roman Catholic Church to protect its children.

But Blaine also knows that Law's resignation isn't going to end the sexual abuse crisis that has brought the Catholic Church to its knees.

"When Nixon resigned, no one naively thought, `Now politics will be cleaner,' " said Blaine, founder and president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). "Likewise, no one should assume that Law's removal will automatically and painlessly usher in a new, brighter day for the church."

In other words, getting rid of a few bad apples isn't going to change the fact that the entire barrel is cracking and deteriorating under the weight of secrecy, arrogance and blind power.

The real problem, critics say, is not prelates like Law who transferred predator priests from parish to parish, but a system of secrecy and a "Father knows best" mentality that protects problem priests at all costs and excludes the voice of lay people.

"To designate Cardinal Law as the one bad apple is to misrepresent what is a systematic failure in the church," said Dan Maguire, a former priest and now professor of moral theology at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

The problem has a number of dimensions.

One symptom is the closed-door culture of look-the-other-way clericalism where, as in many other professions, priests and bishops look after their own, often overlooking glaring missteps and failures.

In a 1999 letter to the Rev. Peter Frost, a self-admitted "sex addict" who had confessed to abusing young boys as far back as 1969, Law said he hoped to find "an appropriate ministry" for Frost, "bringing with you the wisdom which emerges from difficult experience."

That letter was disturbingly similar to a letter he wrote to the Rev. Paul Shanley, who advocated sex between men and boys, in which he thanked Shanley for his "impressive record" and "priestly care and ministry."

Shanley's victims are now suing Law and the archdiocese for millions of dollars in damages.

Another symptom is the church's culture of secrecy and aversion to scandal. Sensing the problems that secret settlements created, the nation's bishops agreed in June not to enter into confidentiality agreements with future victims.

"We now realize both within the church and in society at large that secrecy often inhibits healing and places others at risk," Law wrote in a April 12 letter to his priests.

That penchant for secrecy helped fuel the growth of Voice of the Faithful, a lay reform movement that expanded from 40 people in a church basement to 25,000 members in just a few months. It took 10 months for VOTF leaders to get a meeting with Law.

Law's resignation "is not the conclusion to this crisis, nor is it the ultimate solution," said VOTF President Jim Post. True healing will come only with "real and honest dialogue," Post said. "We must cooperate in shaping solutions."

Under a Law-approved directive, Voice of the Faithful is banned from starting new chapters on church property. Several other bishops across the Northeast have taken similar steps.

The Rev. Thomas Groome, professor of religious education at Boston College, said the bishops have learned from Law's mistakes, but said more must be done to "put right the things that have gone amiss and awry with Catholic polity."

"The bishops have learned a dreadfully painful but valuable lesson, and that is that the cover-up and secrecy has to end," Groome said. "It all has to be aired, and lay participation in oversight and governance of the future of the church is not a luxury, it's a necessity."

Still, many agree that Law's downfall was mostly of his own making. Critics say Law is a man of uncompromising orthodoxy who was singularly focused on protecting his own power and status in the church. Together with the late Cardinal John O'Connor on New York, the pair were known as "Law and Order."

Maguire, of Marquette, called Law "the consummate autocrat."

The Rev. Richard McBrien, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, said, "He listens, but he doesn't really hear."

But what concerns many is that Law's temperament and high-minded view from the throne are shared by too many other bishops and cardinals, particularly those who served under Law in Boston and now head their own dioceses in other parts of the country.

In the future, victims' advocates and lay reformers will wait to see whether the abuse issue is handled pastorally or, as Law chose, fought aggressively in the courts with legions of lawyers.

Speculation also turns now to Law's successor, and how he will approach the job and an uneasy flock in the post-Law era. Observers like the Rev. Tom Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America, said Law's successor will need "instant credibility" and should be someone who can "clean up the problem without the baggage of having been responsible for creating it."

Critics, however, said personality alone will not be enough. "Even if a saint replaces him, the culture and habits of denial and secrecy will still permeate the archdiocesan structure," said David Clohessy, SNAP's national director.

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