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Reaction Mixed over Cardinal Law's New Rome Duties

August 16, 2004

ROME -- About two months after Cardinal Bernard Law was appointed to run one of the most famous churches in Rome, congregations in the Eternal City are reacting with a mixture of compassion and horror at receiving spiritual guidance from the former archbishop of Boston, the Roman press reports.

Cardinal Law was forced to resign amid a scandal over his failure to defrock John Geoghan, a priest in his archdiocese accused of abusing more than 100 minors from 1962 to 1995. Pope John Paul II named the American prelate on May 27 to the relatively ceremonial post of archpriest of the basilica of St. Mary Major, a stone's throw from the Colosseum.

Cardinal Law's new job is largely administrative, running one of the largest and most architecturally imposing churches in the Italian capital. It traditionally has been a recommended place of pilgrimage for Roman Catholics visiting the city.
But critics of the appointment, especially among the Anglo-Saxon Catholic community in Rome, say the job is more congenial and prestigious than is appropriate. They note that Cardinal Law occupies a comfortable apartment in the basilica that goes with the post.

Some think it would have been better for the image of the church had Cardinal Law taken a less visible position, perhaps in a minor American parish.
Other Vatican watchers compare the treatment given the cardinal with the "banishment" of Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, the former head of the Institute for Religious Works, the Vatican Bank.

He was sent to work as an obscure parish priest in Illinois after being accused of involvement in the Banco Ambrosiano scandal in the 1980s. The scandal climaxed with the death under unresolved circumstances of Roberto Calvi, the financier known as "God's banker," who was found hanging under Blackfriars Bridge in London in 1982.

"It would have been better if Law had just walked into the night," said one veteran priest in Rome's Anglo-Saxon community.

Cardinal Law presided over a Mass at St. Mary Major for the first time this month. The Mass is celebrated each year to recall the appearance of the Madonna in a dream to Pope Liberius and to a Roman nobleman on Aug. 5 in the year 352.
During the apparition, Mary told the two men to build a church in the place where snow would fall the next morning. Church lore says snow fell at the site where the basilica now stands.

"What a miracle it would be if it snowed to cool this suffocating August day," Cardinal Law told hundreds of people who attended the Mass.

Many parishioners and tourists attending the service did not know who he was, but several who did gave him a warm welcome, crowding around him at the end of the service to kiss his ring and ask for his blessing, Rome's La Repubblica newspaper reported.

"It was beautiful and very moving for me," the daily quoted the American prelate as saying of his reception.

A volunteer worker at the basilica, identified only as Sergio, told the newspaper, "Our religion does not condemn, it understands, welcomes repentance and absolves.

"Cardinal Law was not accused of pedophilia," Sergio continued. "His fault was wanting to protect the priests of his diocese from accusations. Yes, he made mistakes. I do not want to defend him, but he repented."

La Repubblica went on to say that "if the Italian faithful do not condemn Law, the reaction of the Americans and English who were present was different."

"It is unspeakable that he is here," the newspaper quoted David Adrian, a 22-year-old student from Philadelphia, as saying.

"This is horrific," added Donald Lundy, a Scotsman. "A priest like Law cannot be a spiritual guide."

On June 10, the Italian children's rights group Defense of Infancy organized a demonstration against Cardinal Law's appointment to St. Mary Major.

The rally also was attended by members of the far-right Italian Social Movement and a citizens' committee from Piazza Vittorio, a bustling market square near the basilica that contains one of the few children's playgrounds in the capital's battered inner city.

"Rome, cradle of civilization, rejects pedophiles," the protesters chanted.

But Sergio insisted that Italian parishioners at St. Mary Major disagreed with harsh judgments against Cardinal Law.

"Initially many parishioners found it difficult to accept his nomination, but now the discomfort has been overcome," he said.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests