Officials of the Roman Catholic Church declined to explain the reasons for Cardinal Bernard F. Law’s sudden trip to Rome this week, but experts on the Vatican predicted that both Law’s future and his archdiocese’s possible bankruptcy would be discussed.
Facing a rising chorus of calls for his resignation, Law arrived in Rome on Sunday, just days after a judge forced the Boston archdiocese to release thousands of pages of documents about cases of child sexual abuse by eight priests. Files on an additional seven alleged pedophile priests were made public today, and more documents are expected to be released Tuesday.
In a written statement today, the pope’s spokesman confirmed Law’s presence in Rome but did not specify the purpose or length of his visit. “The Cardinal came to inform the Holy See about various aspects of the situation in his Boston diocese,” the statement said.
“He came on his own initiative and was not called over by the Vatican,” the spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, added in an interview. “I do not know his agenda, but I know he will be meeting with various officials at the Vatican.”
In Boston, officials said this morning they expected to issue a statement about the trip, but later in the day they changed plans and said no details would be forthcoming. The pope’s official schedule did not include a meeting with Law today.
In addition to leading the Boston archdiocese, Law is the titular head of the American parish in Rome, Santa Susanna. Its priest, the Rev. Paul Robichaud, said, “My understanding is that the Cardinal is probably here to consult the Vatican on the issue of bankruptcy.”
An archdiocesan finance council last week formally granted Law authority to seek Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to resolve hundreds of sexual abuse lawsuits with a potential cost of more than $100 million. But some experts believe that Law’s own future is also in play.
“Things are coming to a head,” said the Rev. Gerald Fogarty, a church historian at the University of Virginia. “I would bet it has to do with both issues, namely the permission to go bankrupt and the naming of a co-adjutor,” or designated successor.
Fogarty said that the key question is whether Law has enough influence in Rome to step aside on his own terms, such as choosing his successor and moving to a senior post at the Vatican.
“One of the goals in a situation like this is saving face, so they may well find a place for him in Rome. That is what I would normally predict,” Fogarty said. But because Pope John Paul II spent much of his life in an embattled church under a communist regime, “there’s a different mentality, and part of it is that you should stick it out.”
The closest historical precedent, Fogarty added, was the Vatican’s effort to ease aside Boston’s Cardinal William O’Connell in 1932. O’Connell was publicly implicated in protecting his nephew, who remained a priest despite a secret marriage. Yet Vatican archives show the scandal was far worse than the public knew. It involved skimming church funds through an insurance company set up by the nephew, who may have blackmailed his uncle for participating in the embezzlement and for having an affair with a male judge, Fogarty said.
Despite those charges, he noted, O’Connell retained enough influence at the Vatican that he was able to resist the naming of a successor. Instead, he was sent an auxiliary bishop, Francis Spellman, later the cardinal of New York.
Law has apologized for mishandling sexual abuse in the church, but he has not been charged with sexual abuse or any other crime. And he has steadfastly resisted calls for his resignation, which mounted sharply after the latest documents became public. They detailed how some priests had used drugs, seduced nuns in training, fathered children and engaged in other physical and sexual abuse.
Several Boston area priests last week began openly circulating a petition calling for Law’s departure, and the lay group Voice of the Faithful appears to be on the verge of following suit. Its president, Jim Post, sent a letter to its governing council Sunday saying that if Law has not stepped aside before the council’s Wednesday meeting, he will propose a resolution calling for the cardinal’s resignation.