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Law's words frame new play

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Spotlight Report

Law and Vatican weigh scandal's cost

By Charles M. Sennott, Globe Staff, 12/10/2002

ROME - Behind the walls of the Vatican, Cardinal Bernard F. Law conferred yesterday with the leaders of the Curia to present his case for what would be the first-ever bankruptcy filing for an archdiocese and about other issues related to the sexual abuse scandal in Boston, church officials said.

A terse statement released by the Vatican's press office said Law's unannounced visit was ''to inform the Holy See about various aspects of the situation,'' but fueled speculation that Law was also here to discuss the possibility of resigning.

However, there were signs that Pope John Paul II may be searching for a middle ground short of Law's resignation to address the crisis of confidence in Law and the wider sex abuse scandal in the US church.

The Italian news agency ANSA and Reuters both reported that the Vatican was considering the unusual step of naming a ''coadjutor,'' or a successor to Law who would serve alongside him to spare Law having to resign in disgrace.

Vatican observers said the coadjutor role would impose a certain diminutio, or reduction, in Law's status. The pontiff has taken a similar approach when reining in liberal bishops judged to have strayed from orthodoxy.

Other Vatican insiders were more dismissive of the possibility of a coadjutor, saying that it would not appease angry Catholics in Boston and that it could also further complicate the running of the cash-strapped diocese.

While the rumor mill worked overtime in Rome, a senior official in the Vatican's Congregation of Bishops, which is at the center of the deliberations, said it was too early to say whether the embattled cardinal would resign.

''We deal with the governance of bishops, and I cannot speak to that,'' said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. ''You'll have to ask Cardinal Law what Cardinal Law is going to do and what the Holy Father wants him to do.

''There are all sorts of opinions. But it's still very much up in the air,'' he added. ''The dust has got to settle to see this clearly. And that dust simply hasn't settled.''

Law's sudden trip to Rome surprised and intrigued some of his closest advisers in Boston. Although the Archdiocese's Finance Council last Tuesday had given him its approval to seek the Vatican's permission for the filing for bankruptcy, Law did not tell the members that he would be traveling within days to Rome, according to church officials.

Law slipped into Rome as the crisis over his leadership intensified. Hundreds of angry protesters gathered on Sunday outside the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, the seat of the Archdiocese of Boston, to demand Law's resignation.

Yesterday, 58 priests signed a letter to Law praising him for his service but saying that recent revelations made it necessary that he resign. Separately, the 300-member Boston Priests Forum is set to meet Friday and is likely to draft its own resolution calling for Law's resignation.

Law's presence in Rome was confirmed Sunday night by a Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter who spotted him dining at a restaurant with one of the pope's senior secretaries. Law was not staying at the Santa Marta residence for cardinals as he has in the past, but was believed to be staying with the Rev. James Harvey, an American priest and the pope's public secretary, whose residence is inside the Vatican walls and out of view of the media.

Amid a torrent of requests for comment from scores of media organizations yesterday over Law's surprise visit, the head of the Vatican Press Office, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, released a written statement, saying: ''I can confirm the presence of Cardinal Bernard Francis Law in Rome. The cardinal came to inform the Holy See of various aspects of the situation in his diocese in Boston.''

The Rev. Christopher Coyne, a Boston Archdiocese spokesman, told the Associated Press yesterday: ''Hopefully, we can answer some of the questions, like what's being discussed, what's going on, why is he in Rome, what issues is he actually working through with the Holy Father and with the Curia in Rome.'' By the end of the day, neither Coyne nor Law's spokeswoman Donna Morrissey had issued such a statement.

Only the pope can appoint and remove bishops. Even if a bishop wishes to resign or retire, he is not allowed to leave his post without papal sanction. Law offered his resignation during meetings last April between American cardinals and the Vatican, but the pope rejected it.

A senior Vatican official told The Boston Globe that there was a culture in the Roman Curia that made it slow to fully comprehend the depth of the allegations surrounding Law, but that in recent weeks the ''message was filtering up to the very top.''

The trip follows last week's release of hundreds of additional pages of court documents that detailed more abuse by priests under Law's supervision. The files contained allegations that a priest fathered at least two children, that another traded cocaine for sex with a boy, and that one had sex with teenage girls studying to become nuns.

''Those revelations were very disturbing. There is a sense of things mounting up,'' the senior Vatican official added.

The archdiocese faces hundreds of lawsuits that have threatened its financial survival and its network of assets that includes schools, hospitals, and various parcels of property in the Boston area. An archdiocese financial panel gave Law permission last week to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, on behalf of the archdiocese, but Vatican officials yesterday said Law would need permission from the highest levels of the Vatican before undertaking such an action.

There were serious concerns in the Vatican about the risk that such a filing could pose to the image of stability of the church to contributors. It would also completely contravene a church history dating back to the Middle Ages in which the Vatican has fought to maintain financial independence from government.

Members of the Rogers law firm, which has represented the archdiocese for years, told victims' lawyers yesterday that they believed that Law had still not decided on filing for bankruptcy. ''They're telling us that no decision has yet been made, but that he is discussing it along with several other issues,'' said one lawyer, who asked not to be identified, of his discussions with the Rogers firm.

Jeffrey A. Newman, a partner with Greenberg Traurig, which represents more than half of the 450 alleged victims, said he was heartened to hear that Law had not yet decided on filing for bankruptcy. ''Bankruptcy only takes these cases out of the hands of decision-makers who have an interest in settling them,'' Newman said.

Stephen Kurkjian of the Globe Staff and Alexandra Salomon, a Globe correspondent, contributed to this report.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 12/10/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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