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Spotlight Report

Credibility at issue as Law heads for Dallas

By Thomas Farragher, Globe Staff, 6/11/2002

Cardinal Bernard F. Law, for months at the center of a volcanic sexual abuse scandal, breaks from his tightly controlled regimen in Boston this week, taking to Dallas his prescription for easing the pain of a crisis that many critics say he has come to personify.

At a meeting this week of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, aides say, Law intends to share the lessons he has learned at the scandal's epicenter. But several specialists say the cardinal's credibility is so badly damaged that he can no longer be an effective voice.

''His presence will be an embarrassment,'' said the Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame. ''The bishops won't say that. They won't shun him. They won't want the media to see the tension. But they don't need the cardinal from Boston to inform them of how serious this crisis is.

''They're deeply resentful and I'm sure many of them are saying privately that if [Cardinal] Law hadn't handled this so badly, we wouldn't be in this mess.''

It is not clear whether Law, who except for his Sunday homilies has not publicly spoken about the crisis in months, will meet with reporters this week. But the cardinal intends to make his case with his brother bishops for a policy of ''zero tolerance'' against any priest who abuses any child.

''His is a voice that has to be listened to because of the experience here in Boston,'' said the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, Law's spokesman, ''and also because he is the senior cardinal in the United States and he has been, and continues to be, a real lightning rod for much of the discussion around the issue of the abuse of children by clergy.''

But, many church observers say, Law no longer commands the respect or enjoys the power within the church he did just a year ago when he was regarded as the brightest star in the firmament of the US Catholic Church. As calls for his resignation have mounted, Law has limited his public schedule and has retreated to the confines of the chancery in Brighton.

And, just as access to him was closely guarded during the April meeting of American cardinals at the Vatican, Law is expected to keep a low profile this week - in stark contrast to past conferences.

''I think it's going to be very awkward for everybody,'' said David O'Brien, director of the Center for Religion, Ethics and Culture at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. ''They're all going to feel ill-at-ease with him. What do you say? I can't imagine that he would have any credibility. But these people are polite. They're not going to say that in public.''

Indeed, Law may receive sympathy and support from his closest allies and the several bishops he has had a hand in appointing since he was named in 2000 to the Vatican's Congregation for Bishops, the panel that screens bishop candidates and monitors their concerns around the world.

''He's the highest-ranking prelate in the United States and he will be accorded, I'm sure, all of the privileges that that title and position carries,'' said Thomas H. O'Connor, emeritus professor of history at Boston College. ''At the same time, everyone knows what the situation is. There has to be the feeling that he is no longer carrying the clout or the credibility that he did before. The status is there. The skeleton of the office is there. But the wind is gone out of the sails. There's something pitiful about this.''

At a meeting during which the bishops will discuss the proper sanctions for priests who sexually abuse children, some scholars say, Law's presence may serve as a reminder that the bishops have been so far silent about their own accountability and about what penalties should be instituted for supervisors who know about instances of abuse and then look the other way.

Law has largely blamed shoddy record-keeping and his reliance on subordinates for his failure to permanently remove abusive priests from the ministry and its accompanying access to children.

''The issue here is the bishops' role and their own accountability,'' said M. Therese Lysaught, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton. ''While their draft policy takes a number of steps forward about how they will handle this issue in the future, it just doesn't address the big question. This is more than a mistake or an error in judgment. People are outraged by the bishops' role in aiding and abetting this abuse. And Cardinal Law has not exercised moral leadership in this instance.''

Worcester Bishop Daniel P. Reilly said he, too, wants the bishops to discuss supervisors' responsibility this week. ''I don't know why it's not in there,'' he said. ''I'm sure people around the country are also asking that.''

Reilly said he expects Boston's cardinal to help shape the national policy on clergy sexual abuse during the conference.

''He has been in the eye of the storm and the input that he will give will be very important,'' said Reilly. ''People say that they won't speak as freely if he's there. But I think we will. We're used to doing that. I think you want to have the person who can say the most about the situation that has precipitated this whole thing.''

Reilly said Law is determined to help lead the church out of the scandal's quagmire. ''It's amazing to me that he's held up under this stress and strain,'' said Reilly. ''This is almost six months now. When I talk to him, he seemed to be rolling with it OK. I think he feels he has a role to play in trying to do something about this problem. He'd like to be the one to put the pieces in place.''

Maureen S. Bateman, chairman of Law's Commission for the Protection of Children, said the cardinal will be an important presence in Dallas because of the policies he instituted in Boston.

''I think he's got a lot of credibility because he's very articulate and he's been burned by this occurrence here in Boston,'' Bateman said. ''I think he's going to be listened to sort of in the way that someone who goes and takes a law school exam knows every single case that has happened to create the laws that are in place. I think he's going to do very well.''

But McBrien said Law has always enjoyed closer relations to senior church officials at the Vatican than with the conference of US bishops. ''He's not going to be a major presence and if he is, it will be a public relations negative for the conference,'' said McBrien. ''That's the last thing they need right now because if they focus on Cardinal Law, they're focusing on the weakest link in the episcopal chain. ... Law named a lot of bishops, but he didn't name more than a dozen... and that's not enough of a caucus to save you from any sort of negative repercussions.

''The more Law is visible, the more it hurts the bishops because it focuses on them. It raises the question of not just Law, but how about all these other guys? And they'll just start ticking off the names one by one and ask them, are these people going to take responsibility for what they did?''

Michael Paulson of the Globe Staff contributed to this report. Thomas Farragher can be reached at farragher@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 6/11/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Boston Globe Electronic Publishing LLC.


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