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After the Cardinal Goes

Washington Post Editorial
Saturday, December 14, 2002

YESTERDAY, CARDINAL Bernard F. Law stepped down as archbishop of Boston and begged forgiveness. And so he should, even at this late date. Church watchers guessed that what finally persuaded him was a group of 58 priests who this week called for his resignation. But all Americans and Catholics worldwide should hope it was indeed his own conscience. Because in all the tired rhetoric that accompanies such spectacles -- Cardinal Law's calls for "healing and reconciliation"; his critics saying he finally "gets it"; leaders of victims groups repeating by rote their "disappointment and sadness" -- it's hard to keep sight of what this is about. Cardinal Law kept on the job dozens of priests after he had read files recounting in stomach-turning detail what they did to young people in their charge. For others he supplied warm letters of recommendation for new jobs. All of this was not just a betrayal of his own parishioners but also of the law. The fundamental lesson of this scandal is that Cardinal Law, like anyone else, should have called the police.

There is now a danger that this senior cleric will become the church's sacrificial lamb and that the dramatic gesture of his resignation will overshadow everything still to be done. That action must begin with the Vatican. In his statement, Cardinal Law said he hoped his departure would heal the Archdiocese of Boston. But the problem is nationwide, and perhaps worldwide -- and the Vatican's response so far has not been adequate. Pope John Paul II, who refused Cardinal Law's resignation in April, yesterday accepted it only grudgingly. He was "saddened by the whole affair," the pope said ambiguously. His spokesman, meanwhile, emphasized that Cardinal Law came at his own initiative to resign and was not summoned. To which the obvious response is: Why not?

For the American church the challenge remains the same as ever: complying with the law in hundreds of cases still left to decide. In a bow to accountability, the church set up a panel to catalogue the extent of the sex abuse crisis; earlier this month its chairman, Gov. Frank A. Keating of Oklahoma, complained that many dioceses were fighting in court requests to open their records. This spring Cardinal Law complied with a court-ordered deposition but then answered questions as if he were an Enron executive. He couldn't remember details about sexual abuse cases, even though he had written extensive correspondence on them. He had relied on his assistants to make decisions. Such responses are perhaps wise legally, but they are wholly blind to the larger context of social justice. In cases across the nation, the church has begun replacing quiet settlements with aggressive legal tactics, hiring high-powered law firms and private detectives to probe the personal lives of victims and in many cases their parents.

No one expects the church not to defend itself. In an atmosphere like the current one, the institution is vulnerable to false accusations. Its leaders are worried about bankruptcy. But the American legal system has a long history of weeding out bad claims. As for the financial bust, that may be a cross the church will have to bear.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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