Boston’s Cardinal Bernard F. Law met with Vatican officials yesterday amid speculation that the abrupt trip to Rome means that he was stepping down or arranging for the Boston Archdiocese to declare bankruptcy.
The Vatican yesterday issued a terse statement that said: “Cardinal Law has come to Rome to inform the Holy See about the different aspects of the situation in Boston.”
The Boston archdiocese had no comment yesterday on the trip, which was carried out as secretly as another one that Cardinal Law made in April. Only the pope can appoint and oust bishops even a bishop who wants to resign or retire can only do so with the pope’s approval.
Sources in Rome told reporters yesterday that they expected Pope John Paul II either to ask the cardinal to resign or to appoint a successor, known in canon law as a “coadjutor,” to take over the tasks of running the diocese, leaving Cardinal Law effectively powerless.
United Press International cited “a well-placed lay source” as saying that John Paul would ask Cardinal Law to resign.
“It would send a signal that the days of his stewardship in Boston are numbered while at the same time give his successor hands-on experience in a difficult diocese,” a Vatican source told Reuters news agency.
Church law allows a coadjutor, who has automatic right of succession, to deal with “certain personal problems experienced by the diocesan bishop” in special cases.
Also, during the weekend, Catholics in California were told that abuse lawsuits might financially sink the church there, and this week a New Hampshire grand jury is likely to issue criminal charges against the Diocese of Manchester for child endangerment.
“There is no legal or church precedent for any of these new crises,” Philip Lawler, editor of Catholic World Report, said in an interview. “We’re in uncharted waters.”
Last week, thousands of pages of new court-released documents from the Archdiocese of Boston disclosed cases of a priest who abused boys in exchange for drugs, one who had sexual relations with three teenage girls studying to be nuns and another who had two illegitimate children.
Some of the priests kept their jobs or got promotions after the accusations.
On Sunday, a group of Boston priests turned out at the cathedral to ask Cardinal Law to resign but discovered he had quietly left for Rome.
“Your position as our bishop is so compromised that it is no longer possible for you to exercise the spiritual leadership required,” said a petition being circulated by the 250-member Boston Priests Forum.
The Boston Archdiocese faces a reported $100 million in lawsuits for complicity in sexual-abuse cases. Though the church probably has that much income and property, the archdiocesan finance counsel voted Wednesday to give Cardinal Law permission to declare bankruptcy.
A bankruptcy filing would end court depositions and lawsuits. But it also will open the entire financial domain of the church to a bankruptcy judge and investigators, raising worries of an unprecedented breach of church independence from the state.
“I don’t think the archdiocese has considered the precedent this will set, legally and spiritually, for the state to intervene in the daily financial life of religious organizations,” said Joseph K. Grieboski, president of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy.
Mr. Lawler agrees. “The possibility for a church-state conflict would be enormous,” he wrote. “There is no precedent in American law to guide a bankruptcy proceeding for a Catholic diocese.”
In California, a law taking effect Jan. 1 lifts the statute of limitations on sexual-abuse lawsuits if they are filed by the end of 2003.
“We anticipate that new lawsuits, some involving very old allegations, will be filed against dioceses in California,” said a letter that priests read Sunday from pulpits in 1,100 parishes in California. “The Catholic Church has been falsely portrayed as a large corporation with ‘deep pockets.'”