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Rome's New Cardinal Sin

By Eileen McNamara, Boston Globe Columnist
May 30, 2004

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.

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Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at mcnamara@globe.com.

Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company



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