With Cardinal Bernard Law scheduled to meet today in Rome with Pope John Paul II, speculation mounted here Thursday that the beleaguered archbishop will soon resign.
Law’s unscheduled, weeklong Vatican visit also was clouded by the disclosure of a pending grand jury inquiry into possible criminal violations by the cardinal and other church leaders in connection with the sexual abuse scandal gripping the Boston Archdiocese.
As Law met Thursday with Vatican bishops and staff, it remained unclear whether he will seek and obtain permission for the archdiocese to declare bankruptcy a move that would complicate hundreds of sexual abuse complaints lodged against the Boston church.
The gravity of the situation, said historian Scott Appleby of Notre Dame University, “far exceeds anything we have ever seen in the American [Roman] Catholic Church. The depth and seriousness of this scandal is unprecedented. We can hype, hype, hype all the time. This is a case in which you are not hyping.”
No American cardinal ever has resigned “as a result of his actions or inactions dealing with abuse by priests,” said Father Thomas Reese, editor of America magazine in New York. In fact, Reese said, no cardinal in this country has left office except for reasons of health or age.
In addition, Reese said, no diocese in the United States ever has filed for bankruptcy, although that strategy was discussed in Tucson and Dallas when sex abuse scandals erupted there.
Under such mounting pressure, Reese said, it would be unsurprising if Law left office.
“Of course, what they could do is announce not that he has resigned, but that the pope has appointed him to be in charge of the Vatican coin collection and so he must move to Rome,” Reese said.
The cardinal made a similar abrupt trip to Rome in April, after a series of disclosures contained in previously confidential church files embarrassed the archdiocese. Rather than step down, he returned to Boston determined to tough out the crisis and mend the damage to the archdiocese.
But a flood of documents made public in the last 10 days gave new momentum to a church emergency that already was unraveling at a breakneck pace.
A spokeswoman for Massachusetts Atty. Gen. Thomas Reilly on Thursday confirmed a Boston Globe report that state troopers delivered a subpoena Dec. 6 to the cardinal’s mansion.
Ann Donlan, Reilly’s spokeswoman, said that “he has authorized the grand jury as a legal tool” to investigate the archdiocese. Seven bishops who worked with Law also received subpoenas in the investigation. No criminal charges have been filed.
J. Owen Todd, the cardinal’s lawyer, told Associated Press that he does not believe the cardinal is a target but simply a witness called to testify.
“I think they’ll find that what has taken place and has been disclosed and discussed at great length in the civil depositions does not constitute any crime in Massachusetts,” Todd said.
Archdiocese spokeswoman Donna M. Morrissey did not return calls for comment.
But Jim Post, president of Voice of the Faithful, said Thursday that the Boston-based Catholic reform organization came sadly and reluctantly to its decision late the night before to call for Law’s resignation. Post said the vote followed a Nov. 26 meeting with Law at his chancery in which Law assured group leaders that only two cases of sexual abuse allegations had been received since tough new archdiocese guidelines on the problem took effect in 1993.
When thousands of pages of once-confidential documents were released one week later, “it was clear that that was not true,” Post said. “There were inconsistencies that were very troubling to us.
“What we saw was this pervasive pattern of administrative concealment and cover-up. And that ran almost up to the present time. It was clear that there was just this huge disconnect, to put it mildly.”
After months of vowing to work with church leadership, the group’s leadership council voted 71 to 2 to seek Law’s resignation. (The 250-member Boston Priests’ Forum was expected to meet today to discuss asking Law to resign.)
Yet another round of church files released early this week “seems to suggest that even the Vatican was involved,” said Post, a professor of management at Boston University.
“The release of the documents as incomplete as they are points a finger toward a systemic policy of concealing and covering up these practices that have hurt so many innocent people. It’s boys, it’s girls, it’s women, it’s men, it’s nuns and nuns in training, it’s seminarians it’s across the population,” Post said.
So damaging were the contents of the files released in connection with a series of civil lawsuits that Reese, a member of the Jesuits, likened their impact to the publication of the Pentagon Papers.
“It’s this paper trail that has made Boston so unique,” Reese said. “All these documents show what the leaders knew and when they knew it.”
In recent days, the onus has fallen hardest of all on Law. For nearly 20 years, Law has presided over more than 2 million Catholics in a region that is more than 50% Catholic.
Law established himself as a Vatican loyalist.
Yet he was always “aloof, and a deeply political person,” said Boston College theology professor Stephen Pope. “He was never warmly beloved, never anybody you would want to sit down and have dinner with.”
The sexual abuse crisis and in particular, its most recent, devastating installment has shattered the cardinal’s authority, Pope said.
“Law’s leadership is in the past tense, and it is impossible for him to recover that,” Pope said.
“The pope has to decide: Does he want someone who is a figurehead, or does he want someone who can actually be a leader?”
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