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Cardinal in Rome as protests mount

Published Dec. 9, 2002
Updated Sep. 4, 2005

The sudden arrival Sunday of Cardinal Bernard Law in Rome generated intense speculation here after a week of new revelations in the clergy sexual abuse scandal and renewed calls for his resignation from priests and parishioners.

Donna Morrissey, spokeswoman for the Boston archdiocese, said the cardinal's itinerary is "up in the air," and he has not scheduled a return date to Boston. Law traveled to Rome in July for a previously scheduled meeting of one of several committees of the Holy See on which he serves. But this trip does not appear to be routine: On short notice, Law canceled both his appearance Sunday at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, where he typically celebrates Mass, and a trip today to attend a board of trustees meeting at Catholic University in Washington.

Morrissey said she did not know whether the nation's senior Roman Catholic prelate initiated the visit or was summoned by Vatican officials. Law, who has not been accused of personal sexual or financial misconduct, has steadfastly refused to resign despite increasing pressure. He is required under church rules to submit his resignation to the pope in 2006, when he turns 75.

Among other scenarios, some observers in Boston speculated he might be talking with church officials about the crisis and his future, or he might be seeking permission for the Boston archdiocese to file for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11. Law was granted authority last week by the archdiocese's finance council to seek bankruptcy protection to resolve hundreds of lawsuits by alleged victims with a potential cost of more than $100-million.

The trip comes at a time when Boston Catholics are still reeling from the latest developments in the scandal. Last week, thousands of pages of church personnel files detailed allegations of sexual abuse, violence and drug use by local priests protected by church officials, including one who fathered two children and may have been present when their mother died of an overdose in the 1970s.

The disclosures were not confined to Boston.

From neighboring New Hampshire came news that a grand jury meeting Friday may consider issuing a criminal indictment against the Manchester Diocese for child endangerment.

And nearly 10-million California parishioners got a dire warning from the state's bishops that a liberalized statute of limitations law could produce a flood of added abuse lawsuits and drain money from the church's ministries.

It was one of the church's worst weeks since January, when the abuse problem, which first gained national attention in the mid 1980s, exploded into an emergency.

In the Boston Archdiocese, a group of more than three dozen priests began circulating a draft statement calling for Law's resignation.

"I feel alert to some kind of turning point in this whole crisis," said the Rev. Robert Bullock, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows in Sharon, Mass., and head of the Boston Priests Forum.

The draft statement praised Law for his leadership but said the release of damaging internal church files makes his resignation "a necessary step." The draft was undertaken by more than 40 priests who initially met privately to consider whether they should participate in the archdiocese's $300-million capital campaign. Boston is at the center of the clergy sexual abuse scandal, and Law has been a focal point of those seeking reform.

The "events of recent months and, in particular, of these last few days, make it clear to us that your position as our bishop is so compromised that it is no longer possible for you to exercise the spiritual leadership required for the church of Boston," the draft statement read.

Bullock said the Boston Priests Forum, a reform group of 250 priests, plans to discuss and, mostly likely, redraft the statement at a meeting Friday.

"I don't think we'll be calling for resignation as much as telling the cardinal that priests have lost confidence," he said. "It's not our job to tell him what to do."

An estimated 400 protesters gathered Sunday outside the cathedral in Boston's South End did not shy away from calling for Law's departure, however.

"The cardinal being there is a hindrance to the voice of victims actually being heard," said Jean Garrity, 43, a member of Voice of the Faithful, a Catholic lay reform group. "It implies that we are not accepting their stories."

When America's Roman Catholic bishops met last month and passed a new clerical sex abuse policy, they seemed hopeful their action would finally overcome months of ruinous scandal.

"I think the church is in a much better place than it was before," Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. bishops' conference, said at the time.

In Boston, the archdiocesan newspaper printed an editorial soon after the policy passed. "It is time to move forward," it stated.

But last week's developments suggest the consequences of letting molesters remain in the priesthood will spin out for a long time.

"The bishops in Washington gave the impression that the worst is over, and that they were handling this situation and asking for people's trust," said Susan Archibald, president of the Linkup, a victims' group. "We realize now that not only is the crisis not over, but it's much deeper than we had imagined."

Problems aren't limited to Boston, she added, noting that in Louisville, Ky., where she has just moved, roughly 200 legal complaints are pending.

"We keep being assured the bad news is over, and it's not," said Philip Lawler, a conservative who runs the Catholic World News Web site and Catholic World Report magazine. "Radical surgery has been indicated for a long time."

He thinks Law and other bishops guilty of the "episcopal neglect syndrome" should be removed, but that's not enough. "A new archbishop with the same attitude would keep us in trouble," he said.

Bishops must be removed by Rome, but U.S. Catholics "aren't sure where the Vatican is on this whole thing."

"They're not taking radical action, that's obvious," Lawler said.

Religion professor William Barnett at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., said the bishops' actions were only a start.

"Until we find out that those policies actually work, that offending priests are effectively removed from ministry, the bishops aren't out of the woods and regaining whatever moral authority they had," he said. "This is not going to go away."

Archibald said: "What we've seen in the past year was the tip of the iceberg. What's starting to come out now is the broad coverup executed by the church and also the range of misconduct by priests, beyond the abuse of children."

"The past few weeks have shown we can't rely on the church to solve its problems internally," she said. "The accountability and change is going to come from the outside, through legislation, prosecution, and efforts of the laity."

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.