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Spotlight Report

  Joan Vennochi  

Cardinal Law's new leaf

11/5/2002

AT LONG LAST, Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law is getting religion.

Law is seeking forgiveness with new zeal and humility. On Sunday he acknowledged for the first time that he could have prevented children from being abused. During an emotional homily, he offered the most detailed apology he has yet given during the church's 10-month-long crisis over sexual abuse by its clergy, a crisis that has traumatized the church and fatally damaged his reputation.

It is clear that the cardinal is increasingly sorry for the part he played in the pathetic saga of sexual abuse uncovered in Boston and now acknowledged as a problem worldwide. Like most human beings, he is, no doubt, very sorry about being caught. He is also likely pained by any drop-off in donations. He may even be starting to understand why local Catholics are so angry with him.

On Sunday he said what people have long wanted him to say: ''I acknowledge my own responsibility for decisions which led to intense suffering. While that suffering was never intended, it could have been avoided had I acted differently.''

Catholics will forgive him; they should. Forgiveness is the underpinning of the faith.

But forgiveness doesn't change political reality for Law. The ground shifted last January with the first revelations about the scandal and his role in it. From that point on, power started seeping through his hands, like water through silt. It is unlikely to come back.

That is not written to be mean, just honest about the way things work.

Being shunned is no fun. Once it happens in Boston, it is difficult to reverse. Just ask Michael Dukakis.

Maybe in Minnesota a man can run for president, suffer a humiliating defeat, and still retain dignity and a political future. It is hard to imagine anyone ever turning to the Bay State's defeated presidential nominee and seeing a beloved elder statesman who could step in and rescue Democrats in a hotly contested Senate race as Minnesotans turned to Walter Mondale after the death of Senator Paul Wellstone.

And Dukakis did nothing wrong. He just lost an election.

As he now, finally, acknowledges, Law did something very wrong. But unlike politicians who leave office, voluntarily or not, and lose the power that goes along with it, Law still has the trappings of his position. He has the robes, the ring, the Lake Street mansion, and the forum of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross.

The most faithful will believe that man cannot take his power away, only the Almighty. They are correct in the sense that no one but the pope can vote Law out of office. But the people can vote him out as a voice of moral authority, and that is what they've done. In truth, Law handed that voice away, and it's hard to imagine how he gets it back.

The Globe reports that Law is quietly making his way back to the public eye. He is meeting with victims, answering letters and calls, and attending selected events. It is too bad it took a scandal of this proportion to put this cardinal in relative touch with his people. It's a good thing that it finally happened, but it will take more than that for people to believe he plans to stay in touch. He kept them at a distance for so long.

It is still hard to understand why Law took the actions he did over the past years to protect priests, not children. In the aftermath of the revelations, it is hard to understand why it took Law so long to meet with alleged victims of abuse. It is also hard to understand why he at first rejected overtures from Voice of the Faithful, a lay group formed in response to the sex abuse crisis.

Meanwhile, dozens of abuse cases are still being litigated, and some priests face criminal prosecution. The archdiocese remains slow to turn over documents in court cases, and last week a judge forced the release of a priest's psychiatric records by threatening heavy fines against the church.

The courtroom remains the real battleground for truth and justice. At this point it is far too late to play to the court of public opinion.

Mistakes can make anyone, including a cardinal, a better human being. The loss of power is an especially instructive lesson. It reminds a once-powerful person what life is like for the powerless. And that is strong religion indeed.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

This story ran on page A17 of the Boston Globe on 11/5/2002.
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