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Spotlight Report

Bishops at Vatican reportedly discussing the future of Law

By Charles M. Sennott, Globe Staff, 4/26/2002

VATICAN CITY - The Vatican's Congregation of Bishops has begun an examination of how it will determine whether Cardinal Bernard F. Law has lost his capacity to govern the Archdiocese of Boston, according to two Vatican sources.

The sources - the pope's American biographer, who has unique access to the Vatican, and a senior cleric with direct knowledge of its inner workings - revealed that the slow, deliberative machinery of the Holy See has started to assess whether Law can continue to function effectively while he remains at the center of the priest sex abuse scandal.

Neither source said they knew whether Law would resign, but the process they and other church historians and theologians described seemed to indicate Law has time on his side as the Vatican determines his future.

The Vatican, after all, measures its history in centuries, not news cycles.

And, they added, the fate of a man who has made an extraordinary contribution to the Catholic Church in America is at stake and a great deal of caution and compassion will be applied to the process.

As the Vatican wrestles with how it will deal with one of the most difficult crises in the history of the American Catholic Church, Law yesterday flew back to America, where a now-familiar question awaits him - will he resign?

Looking tired after two intense days under the glare of the media's spotlight during the extraordinary summit here, Law faced that same question in the departure lounge early yesterday morning at Rome's international airport.

''You mentioned my resignation, but that never came up'' at the meeting, Law told reporters at the airport.

''I'm particularly grateful for when the Holy Father spoke. I thought it was excellent. Very good spirit, frank, and very open,'' Law said, trying at every turn to deflect questions about his own personal fate.

Some reporters asked Law why he failed to show up - as Vatican and American church officials said he would - at a news conference Wednesday night that concluded the two-day meeting of 12 American cardinals and two heads of the US Conference of Bishops.

At the meeting, the cardinals developed preliminary guidelines for a unified policy governing sexual abuse by the clergy - guidelines that would be less strict than those Law has adopted in Boston.

At the meeting, the cardinals developed preliminary guidelines for a unified policy of investigating sexual abuse by the clergy.

''I think that is a very personal question, and I am not telling the Globe and I am not telling anyone else. I have nothing to say,'' Law said.

George Weigel, the pope's American biographer, said, ''It seems that one of the things that urgently needs examination after the progress that was made this week is how to establish criteria for determining when a man has lost the capacity to govern a diocese.

''The church has to face the fact that ... even a man who made decisions - what in good conscience he thought were good decisions - may have made it impossible for himself to govern. That is a serious conversation going on in the Congregation of the Bishops in the Vatican.... That conversation has been opened, but the nature of the case is not open at this point,'' said Weigel, a conservative lay theologian.

Another Vatican source, a cleric deeply knowledgeable of the inner workings of the Holy See, said the examination of Law's ability to hold onto his position is not necessarily an official process. He described it as a series of conversations at the highest levels of governance of the church.

''There are discussions around indications of the strength of his [Law's] relationship with the priests and the people of the archdiocese of Boston. These examinations have begun,'' said the cleric, who asked that he not be identified.

When asked whether that conversation was emanating from the Vatican's Congregation of Bishops, one of the most powerful bodies in the Vatican and headed by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, the cleric said, ''Yes, certainly.''

''There are formal structures and informal structures in the Vatican. At times informal structures can be very important in formulating policy decisions. Those discussions may lead to formalized discussions. But my understanding is that these discussions are informal at this point,'' the cleric explained.

Further complicating the examination is the recognition that a resignation by Law could have a domino effect. His admitted mistakes involved alleged mismanagement by at least four of his closest advisers at the time, all of whom have since been promoted to bishop. They are Bishops Robert J. Banks of Green Bay, Wisc., Thomas V. Daily of Brooklyn, William Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y., and John B. McCormack of New Hampshire.

And if Cardinal Law were to resign, the same fate could await Cardinal Edward Egan of New York, who has been criticized for his handling of alleged abusers when he was bishop of Bridgeport, Conn.

The Rev. Jim Keenan, a professor of ethics at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology who is currently conducting research in Rome and has been closely following events here, said this dynamic of a conservative hierarchy trying to save itself has been a hallmark of the scandal.

''They are not thinking of the future of the church and the priesthood, but about their own positions of authority. A culture of medieval clericalism and deference is not only surviving, but finding itself stronger after this scandal,'' said Keenan. ''And that really worries me.''

In June, Law will be forced to answer questions under oath in pretrial depositions in the civil court case of an avalanche of claims being handled by a law firm representing victims of the Rev. Paul R. Shanley, a known pedophile whom Law permitted to remain an active priest.

Law has admitted he mishandled these cases and sought forgiveness from Boston area Catholics, the victims of the abuse, and even his fellow cardinals.

During the two days of meetings here, however, only two of 12 American cardinals publicly made statements that could be seen as supporting Law. They were Cardinal Adam Joseph Maida of Detroit and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C.

The 10 other cardinals and two senior bishops stated that the matter was between Cardinal Law and the Holy Father.

Asked what the pope's position on Law was, the Vatican spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, said late Wednesday night, ''I don't know right now. I do not have information on that.''

Some supporters believe Law will not and should not resign.

One of them is the Rev. Paul Robichaud, the rector of Rome's Church of Santa Susana, which dates back to the 4th century and has a long affiliation with the Boston archdiocese. Law is the cardinal priest of Santa Susana.

Robichaud, a Paulist from the Boston Archdiocese and a keen observer of how power works in Rome, said, ''Cardinal Law has been very loyal to the Holy Father and very faithful to the Holy Father, and the Holy Father is loyal and faithful to him.

''So what if this is hard and painful, we don't walk away from that. That is precisely part of the nature of our ministry, and the message of the crucifixion and the resurrection. Faith is about challenge, and Cardinal Law has the faith that will sustain him.''

This story ran on page A27 of the Boston Globe on 4/26/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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