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Spotlight Report

  Eugene Cullen Kennedy  

Cardinal Law was the captain of his own Titanic fall

12/14/2002

FINAL DAYS, as we learn in famous lives, are often anguished and unhappy. Richard M. Nixon summed it up for all good men gone wrong as he turned in the August sunshine at the door to the helicopter that would whirl him away from Washington and the White House. This touching, deflated Nixon made people forget all the good he had undone by one fatal misjudgment about Watergate.

We witness this again in the final days of another good man, Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law, who has obscured his countless good works by making a glaring misjudgment about handling priest sexual abusers.

Law isn't standing at the helicopter door because he long ago made himself into the Titanic, once acclaimed as unsinkable. When Law chose to become the most powerful prelate in America, he also chose his destiny, a rendezvous with an iceberg, now tragically fulfilled.

Law gained great power by implementing Pope John Paul II's plan to restore the hierarchical form, the monarchal top-down style that was replaced with the Vatican Council II's more democratic collegiality. For many years, for example, Law chose only men ready to sail by these hierarchical charts to become bishops, that is, believers in top-down management by privileged and exempt leaders. Law, as undisputed master of the vessel, employed a genial but blind paternalism and dismissed warnings of an iceberg of clergy sex abuse.

Law signed on to defend the church as an institution, to preserve its cargo and assets and to set lifeboats on the dark sea for the renegade members of his crew instead of for the passengers they abused.

This preference for the cargo and the convicts in the crew became all too obvious with the release of his paternalistic letters of encouragement to priests who had sexually abused children. It became more obvious when he pushed away members of the Voice of The Faithful and the finest of his priests as they sought to have conversations with him about the disastrous course he had been following.

Thus, after being forced to release damning documents about further priest violations and considering bankruptcy for the archdiocese, he forbade diocesan officials to meet at the parish of the Rev. Walter Cuenin to discuss the challenge of raising money in such sorry circumstances.

The ordinary crew members understood perfectly. ''Instead of solving problems like priests abusing girls and giving drugs to kids,'' said a parishioner, ''they're going after Walter. It's crazy, and they can be assured that the whole parish ... will be behind Walter Cuenin and not behind'' the diocese.

The explanation for this is simple and sad.

The rejection of the American Catholic laity's understanding that they, not the bishops and not the buildings, are the church and Cardinal Law's inhospitable words to those who wanted to meet with him were not meant for local consumption. He was really talking to Rome.

He wanted Rome to hear that he was supporting the church as an institution and that he regards Catholics who take seriously the Vatican II theology of the church as a people of God constitute a mob that must be kept under control.

He wanted to reassure the pope that, yes, he was still on board in his program of restoring outmoded hierarchical structures in the church.

He was on board, ignoring warnings and heading into the iceberg of the sex abuse scandal with a ''hey, no problem'' attitude. Discounting his own good people and his most faithful priests, Law hit the iceberg and achieved its true calling, to be an underwater wreck, a lesson in arrogance, the symbol of a lost and bygone age.

It is very sad to see Cardinal Law go down with the vessel of hierarchical control to which he gave his unquestioned loyalty. He is a victim of the misguided and theologically outdated effort to restore absolute control over American Catholics. The survivors are the parishioners and priests who know that they constitute the church as a people rather than as a realm of power or a medieval kingdom.

Eugene Cullen Kennedy is professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago and author of the recent book ''The Unhealed Wound: The Church and Human Sexuality.''

This story ran on page A23 of the Boston Globe on 12/14/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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