Boston Cardinal's decision raises larger questions about Church, critics say

Saturday, April 13th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BOSTON (AP) _ Cardinal Bernard Law's decision to continue as leader of the Boston archdiocese has spawned broader questions about the Vatican's response to the sexual abuse scandal engulfing the church.

``The deeper story here is the gulf between the Vatican and the American church, not just the American hierarchy,'' said Jason Berry, the Louisiana Catholic journalist who first made molesting by clergy a national issue.

While an archdiocese spokeswoman would not comment on the Vatican's role _ if any _ in Law's announcement, supporters of the embattled cardinal say this kind of decision would not be made without consulting Rome.

Law rebuffed widespread calls for his resignation Friday with the release of a letter, addressed to his ``brother priests,'' pledging to serve the archdiocese ``as long as God gives me the opportunity.''

``I can't imagine why he would send out such a letter unless the concept of it had been reviewed with the Vatican,'' said former Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn, one of Law's staunchest supporters and a former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican.

In his letter, the 70-year-old Roman Catholic prelate offered his most detailed explanation to date of how the scandal came to pass.

He acknowledged the church was too intent on keeping episodes of abuse quiet ``to avoid scandal to the faithful and to preserve the reputation of the priest.''

Law also suggested a lack of psychological instruction at seminaries, the failure to weigh the ``criminality'' of child molestation and even shoddy record keeping contributed to the crisis.

The letter was sent days after the latest revelations that the archdiocese had allowed priests accused of pedophilia to continue working in positions that brought them into contact with children.

The case involving the Rev. Paul Shanley reinvigorated the calls for Law's resignation and led to speculation that he would step down.

Shanley, who has been sued for alleged child molestation, was described in archdiocese documents as a ``very sick person'' and known as a proponent of sex between men and boys.

Yet Law moved Shanley around the archdiocese and wrote him a positive retirement letter. The archdiocese also recommended Shanley for a post at a California church without telling officials there about his background.

Critics said that the Vatican's implicit approval of Law's decision to stay reflects its detachment from the American branch of the church.

``Rome doesn't have any sense of the gravity of this,'' said religious historian Martin E. Marty, a Protestant. ``They see it as a North American fuss, part of our sexual revolution.''

Rome's failure to force Law out, others said, shows that the church is not serious about healing the wounds caused by the scandal.

``Until there is some striking indication from Rome that they recognize, or that the pope recognizes, the need for structural reforms within the church, the message otherwise will be that they're going to wait it out,'' Berry said.

Other observers, however, argued that removing the cardinal would be an easy way to quell dissent, but not necessarily an effective way to fix a systemic problem.

``My reading of it is they've decided to indicate the system needs reforming and no one bishop is entirely responsible,'' said R. Scott Appleby, director of Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism. ``They're trying to take away the taint of the bishop's own moral character and point instead to an inadequate system.''

Law has headed the nation's fourth-largest archdiocese since 1984, but he has come under increasing pressure to resign since the scandal erupted in the Boston area in January.

He has acknowledged transferring the Rev. John Geoghan to another parish despite knowing of sexual misconduct allegations against the now-defrocked priest at the center of the scandal.

Law has apologized to Geoghan's victims. He has also reversed a long-standing confidentiality policy and given authorities the names of more than 80 priests accused of abuse.

Archdiocese spokeswoman Donna Morrissey was asked whether Law chose his words to leave open the possibility of resigning later. She said the letter spoke for itself.

Law was not available to comment. Morrissey said he would not perform Mass this Sunday at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, as he customarily does.

Several observers speculated that while Rome has not stepped in yet, it soon will.

``This is a decision that needs to be made in the Vatican,'' said conservative Catholic editor Deal Hudson of Crisis magazine in Washington, D.C. ``And I think ultimately they will come to the conclusion he should step down.''