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The Boston Globe, May 30, 2004

Rome's new cardinal sin

By Eileen McNamara, Globe Columnist


Talk about the Death of Irony.

It wasn't enough to evict parishioners from 65 churches in the scandal-stained Archdiocese of Boston? The Vatican had to choose the same week to install the chief architect of this disaster in a Roman basilica?

Set aside the fundamental depravity of rewarding an unindicted coconspirator in serial child rape with a plush posting to the Eternal City. How much clearer a signal could the Roman Catholic Church send to the faithful that it administers justice in two tiers, one for the laity and another for its clerics?

Before the Rev. Christopher Coyne, the archdiocesan spokesman, calls to remind me of the central role of forgiveness in Catholic theology, how about a review of the concept of repentance? It was still a prerequisite for forgiveness the last time I checked my Baltimore Catechism.

Saying the occasional Mass for five nuns in a suburban Maryland convent, between regular jaunts to Rome, earns Cardinal Bernard F. Law absolution for enabling and then covering up decades of crimes against children? Why didn't his confessor just tell His Eminence to say three Hail Marys and call it even?

The layer of frosting on this hierarchical hypocrisy was the pronouncement from Pope John Paul II on Friday that the United States is "a society increasingly in danger of forgetting its spiritual roots."

That warning, issued to some visiting American bishops, more aptly applies to the Vatican itself. Where exactly did the pontiff see "arrogance" on the list of virtues that Jesus enumerated during the Sermon on the Mount? Blessed, he said, are the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, and the pure in heart; please, stop me when you recognize the former archbishop of Boston.

Blessed, he said, are the persecuted. Persecuted? Law wasn't even prosecuted, despite knowingly transferring serial predators from parish to parish rather than removing them from ministry and despite dodging his responsibility for the coverup under oath in depositions that prolonged the pain of the victims.

The cardinal did apologize, we are sure to be reminded. Tell that to Patrick McSorley's family and friends. They didn't see Law at the funeral for Patrick, who died of a drug overdose in February. The last Patrick saw of Law, the cardinal was sitting across a conference table, stonewalling lawyers during the civil lawsuit against the church that tolerated the abuse that John J. Geoghan meted out to Patrick and to so many others in three decades as a Catholic priest.

Law could have been meek, merciful, a peacemaker. He could have spared Patrick McSorley and the other victims, but "settlement" was synonymous with "surrender" to the embattled archbishop. He gave no ground. The case did not end until he was gone. The pain still hasn't.

The Vatican's appointment of Law as head priest at the Basilica of St. Mary Major is an affront to every immigrant whose hard-earned nickels and dimes built the churches that will now be razed or sold off for condominiums to ease the financial burden brought by the clergy sexual abuse crisis. It does not matter whether the proceeds are used directly to pay the multimillion-dollar settlements to abuse victims. The coffers are empty because the scandal emptied the pews of the people and their checkbooks.

A diminished priesthood and disheartened laity could have inspired thoughtful reflection in Rome. Instead, it provoked a fearful retrenchment, an attack on American Catholics who question church policy on women priests, on celibacy, on the attempt to assert control over the votes of Catholic politicians.

So many hoped that the scandal in Boston would end with transparency, with light streaming through the open doors and windows of the people's churches. Instead, it ends with the hierarchy withdrawing into a smaller, darker fortress, embracing only those who share its rigid clericalism, with the pope actually promoting the man who symbolizes all that went so terribly wrong here.

Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.
Basilica of St. Mary Major (photo by Ed Mitchell)
Basilica of St. Mary Major, Rome
(photo by Ed Mitchell)

followup story

Boston Globe, July 4, 2004

Boston's former archbishop finds a new role in Eternal City

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff

ROME -- In the Eternal City, where two millenniums of Catholic triumphs and tragedies are etched into underground caverns and soaring churches, Cardinal Bernard F. Law is quietly reclaiming a portion of the influence and prestige he once enjoyed as archbishop of Boston.

He is playing an active role in governing the world's largest religious body, serving on an unusually high number of Vatican congregations charged with, among other things, the appointment of bishops and the oversight of priests around the world.

He is the titular head of two significant churches here: the Basilica of St. Mary Major, one of the four patriarchal basilicas of the Catholic Church, and Santa Susanna, an ancient parish now dedicated to serving Americans in Rome.

He is seen about town with some frequency, patronizing some of the same restaurants he preferred when Rome was just a place he visited, and sitting in the front row at important Vatican events.

Although in Boston, his role in the clergy sexual abuse scandal made it difficult for him to appear in public without being shadowed by reporters and protesters, his public presence causes barely a ripple in Rome. Here he is overshadowed within the church by dozens of other red-robed cardinals and a beloved pope, in society by more pressing domestic scandals and controversies, and on the streets not only by ancient ruins and Renaissance art, but by modern thrills like the cast and crew of ''Oceans 12," a motion picture now in production in the city's streets.

This past week, Law celebrated Mass at both of his churches, on Sunday in English at Santa Susanna, the parish where he has served as cardinal-priest since 1985, and on Tuesday in Latin and Italian at St. Mary Major, the basilica where he was named archpriest little more than a month ago. At both Masses, he was attended by his former secretary in Boston, Monsignor Paul B. McInerny, who is the director of Boston Catholic Television.

In Rome, church activists on both the left and right are unhappy with the pope's decision to appoint Law to head a basilica, even though the position is more ceremonial than influential.

''The maneuver is always the same: Move the priest or bishop who has committed the political or moral infraction to another church, and in this manner you preserve the dignity of clergyman and the church," said Luigi De Paoli, spokesman for the Italian association Noi Siamo Chiesa (We are the Church), a liberal Catholic lay movement that advocates for church reform. De Paoli said he believes the Vatican will ultimately have to apologize for giving Law the new post, as it has had to apologize for other decisions in the past.

''The Vatican is out of touch with modernity, where it is no longer acceptable to hide the problem and pretend it has been resolved," he said.

Conservative Catholics have several times protested outside the basilica -- most recently on Friday -- objecting to Law's selection as archpriest.

''This is a city that lives according to certain basic Christian values, and we don't think it's right to have a priest who defended criminals, and they were truly criminals who were guilty of atrocious acts, working here," said Roberto Bevilacqua, regional coordinator for the far-right political party Fiamma Tricolore. ''There are many people who are upset and have joined our cause -- local residents, parishioners, Catholics who do not accept the fact that Law defended priests guilty of such horrific crimes. We will continue this fight for as long as necessary."

At the Mass Law celebrated Tuesday, in honor of the feast day of Saints Peter and Paul, a handful of Americans recognized Law, but many other visitors did not, including a couple from Canada. The basilica is an important pilgrimage site for Catholic tourists -- the current structure dates to the fifth century, has a striking golden coffered ceiling, and is packed with mosaics depicting biblical scenes.

Jim Ferlmann of Naperville, Ill., said at first he knew the cardinal in the golden miter looked familiar, but he wasn't sure why.

''Most people here probably don't know his history, so if they are willing to have him as their shepherd, then fine," Ferlmann said. ''But I'd feel very uncomfortable coming to Mass knowing that he is here."

Dawn Guarino, 44, of Shrewsbury, Mass., said some members of her tour group, all from the Worcester Diocese, decided not to visit St. Mary Major because ''it would have been hard for them to watch him do Mass." She attended the Tuesday Mass because she wanted to see the important basilica, but said ''it's ironic he's here in such a high position."

Some Americans living in Rome are unhappy as well. Patricia Thomas, who grew up in Newton, said she was not pleased with Law's role at Santa Susanna, the church where her son goes for religious education.

''When he resigned, I think we all knew the Vatican wasn't going to leave him on the street -- they don't do that to cardinals -- but we hoped that the Vatican would kick him upstairs, upstairs being a lonely room hidden somewhere deep inside the Vatican," Thomas said. ''One Sunday morning when I took my son to Mass and found that Cardinal Law was presiding, I was extremely uncomfortable. I thought about leaving, but did not. I did tell my son that man had been a cardinal in Boston for many years and that I did not like him for some things he had done. I left it at that. It also bothers me that he gets to vote for the next pope, but that is another issue."

On the street, reaction is calmer. An online Roman news site,, ran a story with an excited headline, ''He covered up for the pedophile priests? Now we're expecting him," but a text in which neighbors and passersby told a reporter they were willing to give Law a chance. ''We're waiting to get to know him and in any case he wasn't directly involved in the scandal," said a souvenir vendor outside the basilica.

And church officials are quite sympathetic to Law's plight.

''There is a basic consensus on two points -- that Law made mistakes, and that those mistakes were grossly exaggerated so that he was unfairly made to bear the weight of the entire scandal on his shoulders," said John L. Allen Jr., Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. ''Most Vatican officials respect him as bright, well-connected, and someone who knows the Catholic world."

Law did not respond to a written request for an interview, and after the Tuesday Mass declined to speak to a reporter. During the Mass, he briefly acknowledged English- and Spanish-speaking visitors in attendance, thanked Bishop Daniel A. Hart, the retired bishop of Norwich, Conn., who assisted at the Mass, and praised the basilica's musical singers as ''the finest choir in Rome."

Law is paid the same salary granted other Vatican cardinals -- 4,000 Euros a month, which under the current exchange rate is about $4,900, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls told the National Catholic Reporter. The newspaper said that amount must cover Law's expenses as well as the cost of a car and driver and his household staff.

Law is also entitled to an apartment in the basilica complex, where a number of church officials live, but it is not clear whether he has moved in.

An archdiocesan spokesman said last week that the church was unable to say whether Law is still receiving any salary or benefits from the Archdiocese of Boston.

Globe correspondent Alexandra Salomon contributed to this report. Michael Paulson can be reached at

EDITORIAL: National Catholic Reporter, April 22, 2005

Law's power a symbol of deeper crisis

The flap over Cardinal Bernard Law’s appearance as celebrant of one of the nine Masses at St. Peter’s Basilica during the period of mourning for the late Pope John Paul II may seem a minor dustup in the long trajectory of the clergy sex abuse scandals.

After all, only two people showed up to protest, the Mass went on as scheduled, the controversy was not expected to have an effect on the conclave, and the headlines faded quickly.

What will not fade, however, is the power of symbol to evoke deeper truths and to raise unsettling questions. Law’s presence in the limelight once more -- not before the media answering long-standing questions about the diocese he left in disarray, but as a representative of the church in a high-profile setting, a place of honor -- was an unbelievably inept and insensitive move.

Offensive as that was to victims of sexual abuse, even more damaging to the wider church is Law’s continuing membership on some of the most powerful congregations and councils in Rome. Someone who has caused such great damage to a major diocese through mismanagement and ultimately the cover-up of child sex abuse should not be allowed near the levers of power in the church.

Vatican defenders of Law suggest that he has already paid for what he did in Boston by losing that see, and they say his appointment in 2004 as archpriest of St. Mary Major in Rome merely acknowledged a lifetime of service to the church, that it was a sign that the church believes in forgiveness and redemption for everyone.

If the sex abuse scandal and resulting crises of authority and credibility in the church could be so easily collapsed into such notions of forgiveness and redemption, the matter would have been over long ago. It isn’t that easy. The community can forgive but still waits for an accounting.

We’ll leave it to God and to those affected by Law’s conduct in the scandal to deal personally with such deeply individual matters. That is not to suggest that the community cannot forgive and acknowledge an individual’s redemption within it. But it is intolerable, both to the community and to those individuals whose lives have been so seriously affected by Law’s actions, to suggest that continued pursuit of accountability is equivalent to a lack of forgiveness.

What the Vatican’s explanation seems to imply is that we should not only forgive but also become reconciled to Law in a way that would mean discontinuing any discussion of what happened in Boston and to stop connecting it to what is happening now.

But reconciliation cannot be forced; it depends as much on acknowledgment of what went wrong as it does the will of both parties to reconcile. Reconciliation holds within it expectations of justice, of a certain equanimity between parties, of a meeting of minds. Such cannot happen at a distance or by wish or imposition.

It bears repeating that the sex abuse crisis is no longer mostly about sexual abuse. It is more enduringly a crisis of authority and accountability. Law lost his position in the United States only after a torrent of bad publicity and enormous pressure from priests and laity in the archdiocese.

Anyone who reads through the relevant and extensive correspondence of not only Law but his auxiliary bishops -- many of whom went on to positions of greater responsibility -- as well as through the depositions he gave can only conclude that Law was fortunate to get out of Boston and the United States without facing greater legal consequences.

His handling of the crisis and his words led to a deepening of the scandal for Catholics, greater pain for victims of priest abusers and a perilous financial crisis that has led to a disruption of church life in the Boston area.

That such gross breaches of trust with the Catholic community should continue to be rewarded with positions of power in Rome exacerbates the scandal and continues to erode confidence and trust in the institutional church.

As NCR Rome correspondent John L. Allen Jr. has reported, Law continues to serve as a full member on a total of eight Vatican congregations and councils, including the Congregation for Bishops, the Congregation for Clergy, the Congregation for Consecrated Life and the Societies of Apostolic Life and the Congregation for Catholic Education. Those posts represent the potential for significant influence over both the direction and leadership of the church.

Vatican officials may not yet understand the strong feelings expressed by Americans about the crisis and the lack of accountability on the part of bishops. But we’re used to systems, imperfect as they are, that bring to account, regardless of position or financial standing, those found to seriously violate the public trust.

The wonder is not that two protesters flew 5,000 miles to make a point about accountability. The wonder is that we have yet to hear similar calls from Law’s peers in the hierarchy. The church could use that kind of first step toward reclaiming the moral credibility that was so seriously damaged in recent years.

National Catholic Reporter, April 22, 2005


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