Two senior Vatican officials said yesterday that Cardinal Bernard F. Law’s visit to Rome this week could culminate in an intense private conversation with Pope John Paul II as soon as tomorrow to discuss Law’s future as head of the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.
Under canon law, only the pope can accept the resignation of a cardinal, and the pontiff did not accept when Law reportedly first offered to step down, as the priest sexual abuse scandal was engulfing the Catholic Church in the United States last April.
The Vatican officials, both speaking on condition of anonymity, said they believed that the situation has deteriorated to the point at which Law is likely to offer his resignation once again. But one of the sources cautioned that ”no one can know what will happen until that meeting between the Holy Father and Cardinal Law takes place.”
The second official said: ”We cannot know for sure until that meeting, but I think a decision is coming very soon. There is a growing expectation [in the highest levels of the Vatican] that Law will offer to resign.” That official said the meeting was expected to take place tomorrow or Friday.
The Vatican press office declined comment on whether the pope and Law will meet.
However, interviews with Vatican officials, American priests in Rome, and longtime observers of the Holy See suggest there is a growing consensus that the crisis has deepened for Law. Given the growing number of allegations on the church’s mishandling of sexually abusive priests, some consider it more likely that the pope would accept Law’s resignation this time. The 71-year-old Law appears to have far fewer defenders now, even among the more conservative priests in Rome.
In a separate development, Law resigned unexpectedly yesterday as chairman of the board of trustees of the Catholic University of America in Washington, a position he had held for 12 years. His term was scheduled to end in June, and Law said earlier this fall that he would not seek another term as chairman. He will remain a member of the board of trustees.
Law slipped into Rome unannounced over the weekend, following last week’s release of hundreds of additional pages of court documents that detailed more disturbing allegations against priests under Law’s supervision.
Last week’s files contained allegations that a priest fathered at least two children, that another traded cocaine for sex with boys, and that one sexually abused teenage girls preparing to become nuns.
The archdiocese faces hundreds of lawsuits, which have threatened its financial survival. Amid the mounting litigation, the Finance Council of the archdiocese gave Law permission last week to file for bankruptcy protection on behalf of the archdiocese. Vatican sources say that most of Law’s meetings here this week focused on the possibility of bankruptcy, which would be unprecedented. Such a filing would also need Vatican approval.
Law was believed to have met with the prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, and with the prefect for the Congregation for Bishops, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re.
The Italian news agency ANSA reported yesterday that Law was continuing his meetings with the curia. Quoting an anonymous Vatican source, ANSA reported that the cardinal would probably be meeting with the pope in the next few days, although the news service said the pope’s agenda ”remained open.”
Vatican officials have privately raised serious concerns about the potential damage of a bankruptcy filing to the church’s image of stability among contributors. It would also go against the church’s long history of fighting to maintain financial independence from governments.
Vatican watchers have said the pope also may be considering a move that falls short of Law’s resignation, such as appointing a coadjutor, a successor to the office of the archbishop of Boston who would essentially assume some of Law’s responsibilities during a transition in leadership. Vatican officials confirmed yesterday that this possibility had been considered in April, but was viewed as unlikely to be employed now.
Ultimately, Law’s fate lies in the pope’s hands, and any discussion between the two will probably be a powerfully emotional moment.
Church analysts say the pope resisted accepting Law’s resignation last spring because doing so would have been perceived as giving in to public pressure. Also, if Law resigned, other top bishops might be forced to do the same.
The 82-year-old pontiff himself has received pressure from some clerics of the church to resign because of his frail health. He has consistently resisted that step and on several occasions has publicly expressed his belief that his role as the leader of the church is in the hands of God.
”Imagine that moment in the context of the pope’s own history,” said the Rev. Paul G. Robichaud, a Waltham native and Paulist priest who is pastor of Santa Susanna, the American parish in Rome and Law’s titular church.
”Here is a man who was a forced laborer under Nazi Poland, who was a priest and then archbishop of Krakow, persevering and standing up to the Soviet Union,” Robichaud said. ”Here is a pope who faced the Soviet empire and contributed to its fall. He was shot and survived and forgave the man who shot him. He lives with a great deal of personal suffering and chronic pain, because he believes the Parkinson’s medication sometimes fogs his mind. With all his pastoral caring, he is a very, very, very tough man. And he expects his church to be the same way.”