Cardinal Bernard Law huddled with Vatican officials yesterday to puzzle over the repercussions of bankruptcy, while back home 57 priests inked a call for him to resign and a key attorney suing his archdiocese said settlement was preferable to years of litigation.
In a tumultuous day in the Catholic Church abuse crisis, the Vatican took the rare step of acknowledging that one of its cardinals made an urgent and furtive trip to Rome to seek advice on the apparent meltdown of an archdiocese.
“I can confirm the presence of Cardinal Bernard Francis Law in Rome,” said a statement by papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls. “The cardinal came to inform the Holy See of various aspects of the situation in his diocese in Boston.”
Law’s spokeswoman, Donna M. Morrissey, said she would offer no details of Law’s conversations with fellow prelates, his itinerary, or even say when he might depart the Holy See and return to Boston.
But sources told the Herald that Law was discussing all his options: resignation, shepherding his archdiocese through Chapter 11 to erase a mountain of lawsuits, and perhaps even borrowing funds from Rome to make the problem go away.
One veteran canon law expert and former papal adviser, the Rev. Thomas Doyle, said, “My guess is they’re probably reading the riot act to him. I wouldn’t be surprised if they either appoint a co-adjutor or he outright resigned. Whoever goes in is going to go in as a loser.”
At about the time Law was taking the temperature of fellow cardinals, an emissary from an ad-hoc group of 57 priests hand delivered a letter to Law’s chancery home saying the clerics have “lost confidence” in him and desire him to step down.
Catholic historians could not recall a similar revolt by clergymen in the United States.
“The cardinal must recognize he is not in a position any longer to maintain his pastoral role,” said the Rev. Robert E. Nee, chaplain of Children’s Hospital, who delivered the letter. “The sentiment is snowballing among many more priests.”
Meanwhile, attorneys for 220 clergy abuse plaintiffs, noting Law’s urgent mission to Rome to discuss bankruptcy, filed documents on seven more problem priests in Suffolk Superior Court.
The release last week of nine other sets of files demonstrating Law’s role in the coverup of deplorable conduct by Boston-area clerics coming as Law was prevailing on his Archdiocesan Finance Council to grant him leeway to file for bankruptcy ignited the brushfire of anger and revolt that has engulfed Law’s stewardship since the start of last week.
But attorney Roderick MacLeish Jr. of Greenberg Traurig, the firm that obtained the files and has led the legal blitz against the church, said he would not rise to the bait of bankruptcy and cancel settlement talk with church counsel.
In what he acknowledged was a softening of his tone from a week ago, MacLeish said, “The lawyers are working together constructively to devise a settlement plan. We believe it unwise for the archdiocese to file for Chapter 11. We are handling cases in five states and any such decision would have a domino effect across the nation.”
Vatican canonists interviewed by phone yesterday said the pros and cons of a diocesan bankruptcy were being heatedly debated in Rome. So was the question of whether a weakened Law should remain in place in Massachusetts to handle the dirty work needed to restore order to one of the premier bishoprics in the United States.
On the bankruptcy question, the canonists said, a split quickly emerged over whether Law needs formal permission to place his archdiocese into Chapter 11, or merely an informal approval.
“Canonists over here are saying, really, it could be both ways,” said a well-placed church official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “This is such a strange animal.”
Canon law carries no explicit statements about bankruptcy, and little precedent exists in the area.
Equally distressing to Vatican leaders is the prospect of setting a precedent under U.S. law for other dioceses by opting for Chapter 11 protection in Massachusetts.
Rome is just now grasping the magnitude of the crisis in the United States, which was dismissed early on as a media-generated commotion involving a few rogue priests, the sources said.
But with the prospect of clergy personnel archives now being subpoenaed in Catholic seats from Brooklyn to Cleveland to Chicago to Los Angeles, the sources added, the Vatican is waking to the fact that the Boston swamp could become a vast American quagmire.
Opinions about bankruptcy are apt to vary as much among Vatican administrators as they do among Boston-area attorneys, experts say.
An attorney familiar with Law’s bankruptcy discussions said Chapter 11 appeals to Law as a way to set a deadline for the filing of old lawsuits and to get at the liability insurance withheld by insurers.
“The issue of insurance companies denying coverage would be in the hands of the bankruptcy judge, and it’s more likely the judge would find in the church’s favor because it would maximize the amounts church creditors could get,” the attorney said. Another advantage is that lawyers’ fees would be temporarily frozen while the church’s finances were sorted out.
But Law has also been apprised of the downside of bankruptcy.
“For the Catholic Church to really have to lay out in a courtroom all of their finances and how their diocese is run, well that defies imagination,” the attorney said.
“You have to remember this is an institution that has dedicated itself to secrecy for the last 1,000 years. I cannot believe that the Vatican will approve of an American court determining what amount of money can be sent to Rome.”
Larry Rasky of the Rasky-Baerlein Group, a Boston PR firm representing the bankruptcy lawyers at Goodwin Procter who were retained by the archdiocese, said: “I’ve been given no timetable. The Goodwin Procter people are doing their preparatory work in case they are told to go forward.”
If Vatican officials determine Law himself should go, several courses of action are available. The most likely, according to a ranking canon lawyer, include:
Appointing an “apostolic administrator” an interim leader who runs the archdiocese pending the selection of a new archbishop.
Allowing local bishops and priests to pick a temporary leader, usually one of the senior bishops in the archdiocese. He would still be replaced by a new bishop.
Naming a co-adjutor. In this case, Law would remain in place but the co-adjutor would be his designated successor. This would be a sign that “the end is in sight” to local priests and lay people.
Such a sign from Rome could not come fast enough for some.
“He’s lost his diocese,” said the Rev. Robert W. Bullock, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows in Sharon and a leader of the Boston Priests Forum, which is contemplating its own call for Law to go. “He’s in hiding. He can’t appear in public here. We need new leadership.”
Before making his conciliatory remarks on settlement, MacLeish spent the morning deposing the Rev. Paul R. Shanley, the former Newton pastor who is in jail awaiting trial for allegedly raping several altar boys. He refused to comment on Shanley’s testimony.
A lawsuit against Shanley and the archdiocese by the Ford family of Newton has been the driving engine behind the release of the disturbing church personnel files that have caused such turmoil.
MacLeish signaled the Fords were open to settlement rather than trial now that so much hidden church laundry has been aired.
According to the Middlesex district attorney’s office, Shanley is expected to post bail “soon.” Sources said it could happen as early as today.
“The fact that the church is finally facing up to the full disinfectant of sunlight makes settlement easier to achieve,” he said.