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Cardinal Law’s shame
It is time to end the posturing

BERNARD CARDINAL LAW, archbishop of Boston, has out Milhoused former president Richard Nixon.

It took little more than two years from the night of the Watergate break-in for Nixon to resign from office.

It took roughly 17 years from the time when Law first learned that then-priest John Geoghan was suspected of multiple counts of child abuse for the cardinal finally to apologize for his mishandling of the cases.

Nixon’s line of defense was best summed up by his declaration, "I am not a crook."

Though Cardinal Law’s long silence speaks volumes, his line of defense is, in effect, "I am not an enabler."

But the sad and sordid facts demonstrate that Cardinal Law did enable multiple counts of pederasty.

Even more sinister and shocking are the attitudes and policies of the Catholic Church, which for years has been in denial about the depth and breadth of a problem it repressed so actively and vigorously that reasonable people could term its institutional behavior irresponsible to the point of criminality.

These are harsh words. But they are the truth.

In three ground-breaking reports, Phoenix staff writer Kristen Lombardi last year laid out the case against Cardinal Law and the Church — 10 months before the Boston Globe published its Spotlight report.

"Cardinal Sin." On March 23, 2001, sex-abuse victims of former priest John Geoghan charged that Law was told of Geoghan’s criminal activity as early as 1984 but did nothing to stop it. Now they want to know why.

"Cutthroat Tactics." On August 24, Lombardi pointed out that when dealing with sex-abuse cases against priests, the Catholic Church acts more like a greedy corporation than a spiritual institution.

"Failure to Act." On October 5, Lombardi reported that by the 1980s, the Catholic Church knew more about pedophilia than any other organized group working with children in the US. So why didn’t Cardinal Law protect his flock?

What was Cardinal Law’s response to the damning facts and disturbing questions raised by these reports? Silence.

Sophisticated readers could surmise that Law’s silence equaled assent.

Law maintained an increasingly arrogant silence until just a few weeks ago, when, on January 9, the pressure became too much to bear.

The cardinal apologized and later pledged to reveal the names of other priests guilty of abuse. All in the nick of time: the state Senate had just passed a bill, which appears to be on its way to becoming law, requiring such disclosure.

In the wake of the cardinal’s apology, which at this late date appears designed more to diffuse criticism than to heal wounds, the Boston Herald reported that "the archdiocese quietly has settled cases involving 50 child molester priests over the past three decades." And again, as reported by the Herald, there are strong suspicions that church officials were warned about convicted child molester Christopher J. Reardon’s assaults on children several months before the Catholic youth worker was arrested.

If true, that makes the silence and inaction of Cardinal Law and the Church all that more incomprehensible, irresponsible, and inhumane.

In March of last year, we observed that Cardinal Law, at a minimum, should step down from his duties until the lawsuits against him and the archdiocese are decided. That is the least that would be expected of a secular leader. Now the time has come for more radical steps. Cardinal Law, despite his unflagging support for Rome’s reactionary policies, has done much good for the archdiocese — especially in the areas of interfaith understanding, economic justice, and staunch opposition to the death penalty. But he now stands grievously compromised. The inaction of Law and his hierarchy passively promoted and sanctioned pedophilia, resulting in damage to hundreds of children.

It’s clear that Cardinal Law has lost his moral authority to lead. He should resign as archbishop of Boston for the good of his congregation, the larger community, and the Catholic Church.

What are people of good will — be they religious practitioners, spiritually unaffiliated, or forthright non-believers — to make of this episode? We suggest pondering the words of Ivan Illich, a socially radical but theologically conservative Catholic reformer.

"I make a scrupulous distinction," Illich said more than 30 years ago, "between the Church as She and the Church as It.

"She is that surprise in the net, the pearl. She is the mystery, the kingdom among us. The identity of the Church-as-She will remain through whatever changes She’s presently undergoing, which are no greater than the Changes She underwent under Constantine, or in Abelard’s time. Those who believe in Her believe in something that cannot be said in words. No pronouncements, however stupid, be it on birth control or on clerical celibacy, can lessen my love for Her and my faith in Her mystery. People who leave the Church because of what She says don’t understand love.

"It, however, is the institution, the temporary incarnational form. I can only talk about It in sociological terms. I’ve never had trouble creating factions and dissent towards the Church-as-It. It is the chrysalis, the skin which has to die in order for the butterfly to metamorphose to its true form. Yet there can’t be a butterfly without a chrysalis."

Illich’s hopes for a transformation of the Church he loved have yet to be realized. Let’s hope — and at this point that is all that we can do — that real, lasting, and meaningful change will be born of the outrages and suffering of recent memory.

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Issue Date: January 31 - February 7, 2002
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