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Cardinal Law Resigns

Sex Abuse Scandal Claims Highest-Ranking Cleric

By Alan Cooperman and Pamela Ferdinand
Washington Post - Friday, December 13, 2002

Nearly a year after the scandal over clergy sexual abuse erupted in his archdiocese, Boston’s Cardinal Bernard F. Law resigned today, apologizing for his mistakes and saying he hoped his departure would usher in a period of healing.

Law tendered his resignation in a morning meeting with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican, and it was immediately accepted, the Vatican announced. Auxiliary Bishop Richard G. Lennon, a relative newcomer to Boston who is untainted by the scandal, was appointed as a temporary administrator until the pope chooses a new archbishop.

“It is my fervent prayer that this action may help the Archdiocese of Boston to experience the healing, reconciliation and unity which are so desperately needed,” Law said in a written statement. “To all those who have suffered from my shortcomings and mistakes, I both apologize and from them beg forgiveness.”

Law’s resignation came after steadily increasing evidence that he failed to remove sexually abusive priests and with his archdiocese teetering on bankruptcy under the burden of hundreds of lawsuits by alleged victims.

There was no immediate word on what Law, 71, the most senior Roman Catholic prelate in the United States and the archbishop of Boston since 1984, will do next. But church experts said he would almost certainly remain a cardinal and could be named to a post at the Vatican. His statement said “the particular circumstances of this time suggest a quiet departure.”

Although several U.S. bishops have been forced to retire because of the sexual abuse scandal, Law is the first to resign because of his mishandling of the problem, without being personally implicated in sexual misconduct.

Law’s brief statement did not explain why he was stepping down now, after months of demands by sexual abuse victims for his resignation. He had offered to resign at least once before, in an April visit to the Vatican, but said afterward that the pope had encouraged him to stay on and that he wanted to be “part of the solution” to the scandal.

Since the beginning of December, however, Law’s remaining support among Boston’s 2 million Catholics crumbled as the archdiocese considered filing for bankruptcy, a judge ordered the release of 11,000 pages of church files on sexual misconduct by priests, and prosecutors sent Law a subpoena to appear before a grand jury in a widening criminal investigation of the archdiocese.

Perhaps the most damaging in this “series of final straws,” said the Rev. Robert Bullock, head of the 250-member Boston Priests Forum, was a letter from 58 Boston-area priests calling for Law to resign. “The priests and people of Boston have lost confidence in you as their spiritual leader,” it said.

In a week of accelerating events, Law’s subpoena was delivered last Friday. On Saturday, he flew to Rome, canceling his weekend appearances in Boston without explanation.

The priests’ letter arrived at his empty residence on Monday. Two days later, leaders of the 25,000-member lay group Voice of the Faithful, which previously had refrained from criticizing Law, voted overwhelmingly to urge for his resignation.

And on Thursday, Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly told a press conference that although it is not yet clear whether prosecutors will be able to bring criminal charges against leaders of the Boston archdiocese, there is abundant evidence that those leaders engaged in a years-long “cover-up” of sexual abuse by priests. “The church cared more about itself than it cared about kids,” said Reilly, a Catholic.

Donna Morrissey, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said today that Law will meet all of his legal obligations, including the subpoena. Holding back tears, Morrissey told reporters that Law was “doing OK. He’s always been steadily concerned with what was in the best interests of the archdiocese of Boston.”

Boston was in an uproar today over Law’s resignation. Both of the city’s newspapers ran “Extras” and television stations were live with the story all morning. And although the cardinal’s critics--including many alleged victims--were pleased, a tone of subdued sadness permeated the city, one of America’s bastions of Catholicism where many residents identify themselves by parish rather than by neighborhood.

Law remains a defendant in the hundreds of civil lawsuits but it will now be up to Lennon, the temporary administrator, to decide whether the Boston archdiocese should file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to try to force a global settlement of those suits.

Lennon, 55, has been rector of St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, Mass., since 1999 and was ordained a bishop last year. He said today that he would resign the seminary post and “do all I can with the help of the bishops, priests, deacons, religious and laity of the archdiocese, to work towards healing” the wounds left by the scandal.

James E. Post, president of Voice of the Faithful, noted that Lennon has met several times with abuse victims. “That gives us hope because if you look at what lies ahead, there’s no quality more important to the healing process than the ability to listen and to have a genuine conversation with people of the archdiocese,” Post said.

As a relatively new bishop, however, Lennon does not appear to be in the running to become Boston’s next cardinal. Among the likely candidates for the post, according to church experts, are Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; Archbishop Harry Flynn of St. Paul-Minneapolis, who heads the conference’s Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse; and Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien, head of the vicariate of the U.S. Military Services.

Although Vatican officials said Law raised the possibility of bankruptcy during his discussions in Rome this week, it is unclear whether the Vatican gave its approval.

Plaintiffs lawyers have said they believe the talk of Chapter 11 is a bluff intended to pressure victims into accepting smaller settlements and dissuade them from bringing further lawsuits.

But bankruptcy would open the archdiocese’s books, turn over control of its finances to a civil court, bring shame on the church and depart from the Vatican’s worldwide policy of financial independence from governments.

Law’s resignation could help avoid all that, said Patrick Schiltz, an associate dean of the University of St. Thomas Law School in Minneapolis, Minn., who has represented many U.S. dioceses in sexual abuse lawsuits.

“I’ve negotiated hundreds of settlements in clergy misconduct cases, and unlike a typical commercial case, they are emotional events, not just financial events,” Schiltz said. “The victims in Boston just don’t trust Cardinal Law, and many of them have personalized their anger on Cardinal Law. Whether that’s right or wrong, it’s been an obstacle to settlement.”

Several plaintiffs’ lawyers said, however, that they will continue to pursue lawsuits and file new ones.

Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer for scores of alleged victims of the former priest and convicted pedophile John Geoghan, said that “just because Bernard Cardinal Law resigns doesn’t mean everything’s OK now. There’s enormous rot, enormous decay in the archdiocese of Boston. Now it has to cleanse itself.”

Barbara Blaine, founder of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said she hoped that prosecutors, the media and the public would now focus on New York’s Cardinal Edward Egan, Los Angeles’ Cardinal Roger Mahony and Law’s former deputies -- “all of whom have done what Law himself has done, but who have avoided proper scrutiny largely because Law himself has become such a lightning rod.” But she stopped short of calling for those prelates to resign.

One of Geoghan’s alleged victims, Patrick McSorley, said Law’s resignation “is a little too late, but at least now we know we can start anew. I don’t want to hear anymore about anymore little kids being victimized by any more priests.”

Ferdinand reported from Boston.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests