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Spotlight Report

Scholars see hand of Rome in letter

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 4/13/2002

The letter was written in Brighton, and it was delivered by fax to priests throughout Eastern Massachusetts.

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But when theologians and other scholars of the Catholic Church read the extraordinary missive Cardinal Bernard F. Law sent to his priests yesterday, they saw the hidden hand of Rome.

The Vatican and American bishops are loath to see Law resign because of a fear that his ouster would fuel a clamor for other bishops to quit, and out of a desire not to be seen as bending to public pressure, scholars say.

''There's clearly been communication with the Vatican, between Law and the pope, and between people in the curia with the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and it seems that they have decided that this is a systemic issue, rather than about the mistakes or sins of an individual bishop,'' said R. Scott Appleby, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame.

Appleby argues that all bishops share the blame for the church's retention of abusive priests. ''If the Vatican asks Law to resign, they may as well ask multiple bishops to resign, because the flaw is in the system,'' he said.

Law's letter, in which he says he will remain as archbishop of Boston ''as long as God gives me the opportunity,'' is being analyzed throughout the archdiocese and the nation.

Many readers see considerable ambiguity in his choice of language, which appears to allow him to leave at some later date, and Law's spokeswoman, Donna M. Morrissey, added to that ambiguity by repeatedly declaring that Law is in seclusion so he can pray and talk with advisers about his future. In a highly unusual decision, Law will not celebrate tomorrow's Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston. The cardinal celebrates Mass at the cathedral every week, except when he is traveling.

''God's will could change, and God's will could change depending on what the Vatican says about the financial situation of the archdiocese,'' said Stephen J. Pope, chairman of the theology department at Boston College. ''I think he's trying to communicate that he's not going to run, and he's not going to abdicate what he sees as his religious mission.''

Pope said Law will discern what God wants through communication with Rome, his own understanding as an ordained bishop, and prayer.

But the theologian said Law's letter, although praiseworthy as an effort to communicate, is sure to spark the ire of victims and advocates for change. Critics focused in particular on Law's assertion that the case of the Rev. Paul R. Shanley, whose alleged proclivity for sex with young boys was chronicled extensively in church files, had revealed a problem of ''inadequate ... record keeping.''

''The reference to the need for better bookkeeping will be the most criticized aspect of the letter, because the problem with Shanley was ... the decision to unleash him on people, and not just a question of bookkeeping,'' Pope said. ''And people will still wonder if Cardinal Law is really taking responsibility. The biggest problem is that Cardinal Law put the institution ahead of the needs of children, and that's not a mistake made in good faith, and he doesn't acknowledge that here.''

Numerous church scholars have said that if Law is forced out, there will be inevitable pressure on other bishops to quit, including Cardinal Edward M. Egan of New York, who has been criticized for his handling of alleged abusers as bishop of Bridgeport, Conn., as well as Bishops Robert J. Banks of Green Bay, Wisc., Thomas V. Daily of Brooklyn, and John B. McCormack of New Hampshire, who were top officials in Boston when abusive priests were shuffled.

''The assumption has to be that the Vatican insisted Cardinal Law stay at his post, because if a cardinal could fall prey to what they regard as a media campaign, aided and abetted by what they regard as a liberal faction in the church, this would undermine a whole host of other bishops as well,'' said the Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a theologian at Notre Dame. ''The media and others with an agenda - which is how the Vatican looks at this - would see the downfall of a cardinal as a signal that they could then go after other figures in the hierarchy.''

Law's decision to stay may be relatively short-term; one of his advisers said the cardinal is only buying time to discuss his future with the Vatican. And some scholars said his ability to stick by his desire to stay in Boston depends on how priests, laypeople, and donors react to yesterday's announcement, and whether the clergy sexual abuse scandal intensifies or abates.

''In all the years I've known and worked with Cardinal Law, I've never known him to back away from a difficult task, and certainly the task ahead of him is a difficult one,'' said Cardinal Adam J. Maida of Detroit. ''I believe he is most capable of handling it. I'm grateful for his friendship and for his continued voice in the American church.''

Some church scholars said the decision is in keeping with Law's personality. His letter was in some ways a reiteration of the position he has articulated since the scandal became a crisis in January: He does not intend to leave.

''This is consistent with what I know of the cardinal's personality. The man is proud and strong and determined,'' said Thomas H. O'Connor, emeritus professor of history at Boston College and the author of ''Boston Catholics,'' a history of the archdiocese.

Appleby, of Notre Dame, said Law's decision could be seen as courageous.

''One might interpret it as oblivious or arrogant, but one could also say this is great courage, because the burden of reform is squarely on him and the other bishops in this country,'' he said.

Advocates for change within the church were shocked, and preparing to regroup after devoting considerable energy to encouraging Law to leave.

''I am stunned by this, and it certainly is not what any of us expected,'' said Mary Jo Bane, a Harvard professor of public policy who has emerged as a leader of lay Catholics pressing for reform. ''He doesn't speak at all to any of the structural issues that people have been talking about. He talks about abuse of children, but not about the issues of decision-making or disclosure or participation or consultation that seem to many of us to be at the root of the problem.''

Some said Law's decision to stay will keep critics energized.

''It keeps the pot boiling,'' said Barbara Mahar of Massachusetts Women-Church, a group advocating the ordination of women as priests. ''We'll have greater numbers, and the call for serious structural change will get louder.''

Scholars said that as long as Law stays in Boston, he will be challenged by the damage done to his support from priests and rank-and-file Catholics, his ability to raise money for the church, and his ability to serve as a spokesman on moral issues.

''If donations continue to fall, the cardinal really has to ask himself whether his continued presence is undermining the good of the church, and particularly its charitable works,'' McBrien said. ''And if he does stay for another five years - as long as God gives him strength and health, it doesn't take a crystal ball to suggest that his moral authority and credibility during that period will be drastically reduced. And we have not seen the end of developments in this matter either; there are other things that undoubtedly are going to be disclosed.''

Richard J. Santagati, president of Merrimack College in North Andover, said the fact that the archdiocese just last week was fighting the release of documents describing its handling of Shanley is not encouraging as a sign of the church's attitude toward openness, even though Law said in his letter yesterday that ''we now realize ... that secrecy often inhibits healing and places others at risk.''

''It's hard to have a lot of confidence,'' he said. ''His ability to advocate for the principles that are so important to the diocese and to the church has been rendered null and void.''

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 4/13/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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