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The End of Rule by Law

Burned By The Scandal of Predator Priests, Boston's Cardinal Steps Down. His Church's Problems Go On

Dec 23, 2002 | Time Magazine The Vatican prefers to do things quietly. So, sometimes, did Boston's Bernard Cardinal Law. For years, when sexually abusive clergymen were brought to his attention, he quietly transferred them from one parish to another. By last April, as the scandal over pedophile priests escalated, Law, the most powerful of the American prelates and a favorite of the Vatican's, had come to symbolize the reckless indifference of Roman Catholic Church officials. That was when he first traveled unannounced to Rome to offer his resignation to Pope John Paul II, who quietly refused to accept it. Despite the growing uproar in the U.S., the Vatican was determined not to give the impression that its decisions are swayed by the passions of public opinion.

But in the months since, with new allegations of clerical abuse emerging almost daily, the passions have only increased. So a heavy shouldered Law, 71, facing a grand jury subpoena and the potential bankruptcy of his archdiocese, went to Rome again last week to tender his resignation. This time it was accepted. And although ecclesiastical changes are sometimes hushed for a while, this one was made public almost at once. Says Scott Appleby, a professor of Catholic history at the University of Notre Dame: "The crisis finally has been acknowledged by Rome to be as serious as most American Catholics have understood it to be for months now."

Just ask anybody in Boston. Law's resignation came amid a rebellion that started among parishioners but ended up including a growing number of priests. They were outraged that he had sheltered serial predators like John Geoghan, who has been implicated in 130 cases and was sentenced to nine to 10 years in prison for improperly touching a 10-year-old boy, and Paul Shanley, who publicly advocated the idea of sex between men and boys. It did not help Law's standing last week when Shanley, who is awaiting trial, was released on bail.

In late November a Massachusetts court ordered the archdiocese to turn over thousands of personnel files. They showed that local priests had been accused of abusing women and girls and taking drugs. Then two weeks ago, the archdiocese's finance council gave Law permission to seek the first bankruptcy protection for an archdiocese. Costs from victims' lawsuits about 450 so far could eventually run to as much as $100 million.

Soon after the bankruptcy blessing, Law departed discreetly on his second unannounced trip to Rome. In his absence, 58 of the archdiocese's 600 active priests signed a letter calling on him to resign. "If there was a single item that was unprecedented, it was the letter from the priests," says Jim Post, president of Voice of the Faithful, a lay group formed in response to the crisis, which also called for Law to step down last week. "That's the constituency that is always the last to stay and stand with their bishop." Law read the signs. "In April he came [to Rome] not believing he had to go," says a senior Vatican official. "This time it was more like, 'I have to go. I am seeking your permission.'"

Law's resignation doesn't end his problems. Just a day before he left for Rome, he was subpoenaed by Massachusetts attorney general Tom Reilly to testify before a grand jury probing whether he and top aides should face charges for shuttling around the abusive priests. The church's problems are not solved either. While Law stayed in the Archbishop's seat, angry and frustrated parishioners, many of whom have been keeping their wallets shut, organized into groups that continue to demand a greater say in church affairs demands that the Vatican will not hear gladly. Rome swiftly announced that Law's interim successor would be Boston's Auxiliary Bishop Richard G. Lennon, 55. A healer and reconciler, people call him — and he is also an expert on church law who will know how to handle the legal difficulties coming his way. He will need all his powers.

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