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Mourning for pope brings Law into public eye

By Charles M. Sennott - Boston Globe
April 7, 2005

ROME -- Adorned with miter and crimson vestments, Cardinal Bernard F. Law led a special Mass and prayer vigil for Pope John Paul II at St. Mary Major basilica for his congregation of Italian churchgoers and a handful of American tourists and pilgrims from other countries.

The service Tuesday offered a glimpse of Law's pastoral role as the head of one of Rome's three grand basilicas -- and the distance Law has traveled from the harsh spotlight of the priest sex abuse scandal that prompted his resignation as head of the Archdiocese of Boston in December 2002.

Many Boston Catholics say it is difficult to see Law in this leadership role at the heart of the Catholic Church after what they believe was Law's failed stewardship of the Boston archdiocese during the painful disclosures of widespread priest sexual abuse, and his role in permitting the reassignment of priests who had repeatedly abused children.

Those feelings have been intensified by the fact that Law, who has studiously avoided the media since his resignation, has reemerged in the public eye during the mourning for the pope.

As news of the pope's death was carried live on television around the world Saturday, Law could be seen in the background on the steps of St. Peter's Basilica, joining a small group of clergy leading the saying of the rosary. On Sunday, Law gave a lengthy interview to ABC News in which he spoke eloquently about the pope's legacy, but refused to answer any questions about the abuse scandal. And for the last two days, television cameras have shown Law leaving a conference of the cardinals who now run the church in the interim period before they convene April 18 to elect a new pope.

Some members of support groups for the victims of clergy abuse have asked with indignation why Law should be allowed to be included among the 117 cardinals who will vote for a new pope, feeling that his presence diminishes the sanctity of the process.

Suzanne Morse, spokeswoman for Voice of the Faithful, a Newton-based national reform organization that grew out of the sexual abuse crisis, said Law's visibility in the days since the pope died had served as ''a painful reminder that we're still dealing with the aftereffects of his tenure as archbishop, and we're not out of the woods yet in terms of healing from the wounds of the last three years."

The organization, she said, is considering ways to protest Law's participation in the conclave, perhaps by issuing a statement or asking members to write to the Vatican, she said.

But some Catholic commentators say that to suggest Law should not vote is to misunderstand the institution of the Vatican. They say that even though the pope accepted Law's resignation as leader of the Archdiocese of Boston, he never saw any grounds for Law to lose his status as a cardinal. All 117 cardinals under the age of 80 have the right to vote for the next pontiff.

The Rev. Keith Pecklers, a Jesuit and professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, said, ''I don't know of a single person in the Curia or in the wider church circles here who would think twice about him voting in the conclave. That is not to be dismissive of the scandals. They were very serious problems which led to his resignation as they should have. But in the end of the day he is still a cardinal. I have no problem with him voting.

''The 117 cardinals who are voting are all human beings and they have flaws as we all do. Holiness can come through suffering, from being broken or humbled. And that is Cardinal Law's experience, I would say. So that might even help him approach his decision in a more spiritual manner."

John Allen, Rome correspondent of the National Catholic Reporter, said that any attempt to pressure Law not to vote would have little effect in Rome, because not voting would be seen as ''an abdication of his responsibility as a cardinal."

''I've never met anybody who defended his handling of the crisis. Everyone recognizes there were lapses of judgment, but the Curia and church authorities here contextualize those in a way that Americans and Bostonians do not. They occurred within [his] decades of service to the church," added Allen.

Those who know Law say he has adjusted to life in Rome after the scandal, and has seemed happy in recent months getting back to working for the church he loves. His longtime friend and aide, Monsignor Paul B. McInerny of Boston, is joining him to serve as his personal secretary in Rome, according to the archdiocese newspaper, The Pilot. Law, 73, hardly ever served as a parish priest and is said to enjoy taking up the ancient role of the cardinals as ''the clergy of Rome."

Rome has more than 30 cardinals, and they are part of the fabric of the city. Here, Law is out of the glaring spotlight of the American media and its culture of accountability. Here, he has been welcomed back into the fold of the Curia, which never seemed to grasp the intensity of the sense of betrayal felt by American Catholics over the scandal and the hierarchy's handling of it.

Despite Law's reappearance in the public eye, the Rev. William Stetson, the director of the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C., and a close friend of Law since they graduated together from Harvard in 1950, insists Law is not trying to rehabilitate his image. ''He loved the pope who made him a cardinal. He sought to serve him loyally and generously. And he wanted to express what was in his heart to all Americans," said Stetson.

But the anger over the priest sex abuse scandals is apparent among Bostonians, now in Rome to pay their last respects to the pope, when they are asked about their former archbishop.

Standing on a crowded side street among the throng of mourners waiting to view the pope's body, Helen Cronin of Milton was asked about Law's upcoming vote for a new pope. Cronin answered: ''I hope and pray the Holy Spirit for once is with him when he decides. The spirit wasn't with him when he was in Boston."

His Italian parishioners respond differently. After the service, Law emerged from the sacristy to greet several Italian families that had come to him for blessings, and they kissed his ring. Asked afterward what they knew about Law and his past, they said they knew him only as rector of the basilica and had heard nothing about the scandal in Boston.

Law talked briefly with a reporter about the powerful emotion of the last few days and about the pope who consecrated him as a cardinal in 1985. ''That rich legacy that is his teaching will always be a gift to us," he said.

Law declined to be interviewed, and said simply, ''We will be here until 11 p.m. praying for the Holy Father. That is our focus. That is where we should keep our thoughts right now. Stay, pray with us."

Law also greeted Ted Woodard, 20, from Norwood, who was traveling through Italy and turned his vacation into a pilgrimage to pay his last respects to the pope. Woodard knew Law from serving as a youth representative on the Boston diocesan parish council when Law was cardinal.

''I worked with Cardinal Law and have a lot of respect for him," said Woodard.

The charisma and intellect that once made Law one of the stars of the church was evident, but he looked older, a bit stooped and drained.

He turned back into the church for the ''adoration" prayers for the pope, and told one of his aides, ''I am going to pray." Then Law walked down the center aisle of the church and knelt before the altar and prayed quietly and alone.

Correspondent Sofia Celeste contributed to this report from Rome. Kathleen A. Burge of the Globe staff contributed from Boston.


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