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Church in Crisis

Boston looks ahead after Law resignation


What does the future hold for the local church in the nation’s fourth largest diocese? That question is on the minds of nearly everyone here, including members of the laity, clergy, hierarchy and hundreds -- if not thousands -- of victim-survivors of clerical sex abuse and their families, friends and supporters.

Just about everyone agrees that the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law has helped ease the pain, anger and sense of betrayal experienced by so many during the sex abuse scandal that has rocked this very Catholic city and region. But what happens beyond his resignation remains unknown, with few clear plans developed.

On Dec. 13 Law attempted a graceful exit, speaking before members of the media at a news conference on the grounds of the chancery offices. “It is my hope and it is my prayer that my resignation as archbishop might help the archdiocese to experience healing, reconciliation and experience unity,” he said, reading from a prepared statement. “To all those who have suffered from my shortcomings and from my mistakes, I once again apologize and from them I beg forgiveness.” Law took no questions from the press, and his statement was barely three minutes long.

Still, the road to healing, reconciliation and reform is no doubt a daunting task in the months and perhaps years that it will take to deal fully with the crisis. Divisions run deep in Boston between the hierarchy and abuse survivors, with members of the Catholic laity remaining in between. A profound sense of distrust prevails, as well as a growing perception that power dynamics have changed.

“The situation in Boston is too volatile,” says Luise Dittrich, a founding member and spokeswoman for the Voice of the Faithful, the largest church-reform advocacy group to form this year in the wake of scandal. “There’s too much skepticism, too much cynicism to go back to business as usual,” she said. “The burden of proof has shifted.

“Before, the survivors and the laity had to prove ourselves to the hierarchy,” she said. “The laity had to prove we were praying hard enough. [Voice of the Faithful] had to prove we were orthodox enough. The survivors had to prove they were hurt enough and not lying. Now the burden is on the bishops who squandered our trust. If some of them continue to charge all of us with being anti-Catholic or dissident that will be very self-defeating.

“The dominoes have started to fall. We hope the hierarchy embraces the laity and begins to reach out and work with us.”

A shift in dynamics

Another shift in dynamics seems certain in the post-Law local church: Whoever is appointed as the new archbishop needs to be someone with pastoral presence, open to meaningful dialogue with a wide range of people.

Bishop Richard G. Lennon, the newly appointed apostolic administrator and temporary leader of the Boston archdiocese, took small but significant pastoral steps to facilitate the journey of healing and reconciliation. Lennon, during his first homily Dec. 15 at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, acknowledged the magnitude of the task:

“The events of the past 11 months, and especially the last several days, have been momentous and unique,” he said. “These events have evoked many different responses, many times, individuals having a combination of responses, such as dismay and disappointment, frustration and anger. For some, a loss of trust in the hierarchy and profound sense of sadness.”

Nonetheless, Lennon offered hope and encouragement. “God willing, not only can things change, but things can improve,” he said. “I pledge to do all that I can to be a shepherd for this great archdiocese, relying on the prayers, the support, the assistance of all of God’s people. For the household of faith is only as strong as when all of us are united in that faith.”

Between 300 and 400 worshipers -- at least twice the number in attendance the previous week -- gave Lennon a standing ovation after his homily.

Nevertheless, not everyone was satisfied. Richard Link of Somerville, Mass., called Lennon’s homily “far too institutional.” Link, who says he was abused by a priest in a different diocese, said, “He had a chance to turn things around and he didn’t.”

Yet for others, just as Lennon’s words sounded a new tenor and tone, so did his actions. After greeting worshipers after the 11 a.m. Mass, some of whom he warmly embraced, Lennon stepped outside briefly to converse with victims and their supporters.

One survivor Robert Hatch, 45, had the opportunity for a short conversation with the bishop. “I told him what happened to me, and he said, ‘I’m sorry, God bless you,’ and I said thank you,” said Hatch, who alleges that a priest abused him when he was a teenager.

Along with dozens of others, Hatch has been protesting outside the cathedral for months. “We want to see deeds more than words,” Hatch explained. “We victims will be watching him with a close eye to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”

One onlooker, who asked not to be identified, said, “I give Bishop Lennon credit for stepping outside. He did that, and Cardinal Law never did.”

With the whole church

In a midweek news conference, Lennon said he had three immediate priorities: “support for victim-survivors,” “protection of children and prevention of further abuse,” and “fostering unity among the faithful.” He said he would meet with victim-survivors who wish to see him. Lennon also signaled a willingness to move toward settlement of all abuse cases. “Aware that there have been ongoing discussions, this morning I have asked counsel for the archdiocese to request that all parties set aside, except for activity mandated by the court, the day-to-day litigation activities for a period of time so as to permit all parties to pursue actively the potential for a comprehensive settlement of all cases,” he said.

Lennon also said that he was open to continuing dialogue with Voice of the Faithful, saying there was “unfinished business” with the lay-led church reform advocacy group. He also reiterated his willingness to hear from all who love the church, including members of the “homosexual community.” He said everyone will be treated with “dignity and respect.”

Beyond these first few days and weeks, what are the next steps along a road to healing, reconciliation and unity? Jesuit Fr. Thomas J. Reese, editor of New York-based America magazine, said in a phone interview that he sees two options: “One is to appoint a new archbishop as soon as possible because you are going to have to get someone who can make decisions and move forward.

“The other option is to postpone the decision, but make it clear that Bishop Lennon has all the authority he needs to clean up the mess; and to let him do that, so that a new archbishop could be appointed and come in with a fresh, clean slate,” Reese said.

Reese expressed a preference for the second option. “I’d feel sorry for an archbishop who in the first year of office has to declare bankruptcy, or has to sell the seminary, or worse yet has to go into hard-nosed negotiations with lawyers representing the victims,” he said. “Those choices are not very attractive. They’d be smarter to let a temporary administrator do the clean up.”

Bishops Gregory and Flynn

Reese said the new archbishop must be someone who can “hit the ground running, who has instant credibility with people, bishops, priests, victims and the media,” he said. “Bishop Wilton Gregory and Harry Flynn are the obvious candidates because both are known nationally with taking tough stands on sex abuse, and more important, both have experience with dioceses going in and cleaning them up.”

In Massachusetts, moral theologian Stephen J. Pope, chairman of the theology department at Boston College, offered his perspective on the future of the local church: “It would be most helpful for the apostolic administrator and/or the new archbishop to be involved in a broader consultation process that would elicit trust and help him get better information and share in decision-making,” Pope said during a phone interview.

“It would take a very confident bishop to do that, one that trusts the Spirit is working in the community,” he added. “But anything that Bishop Lennon can do to listen to the people and let them know that he’s hearing what they are saying, and not get defensive, would help rebuild trust and restore confidence.”

According to Pope, Lennon’s greatest weakness is his lack of pastoral experience. “He hasn’t been a pastor; and never has had his own parish. Basically, he has spent 10 years in the chancery as a canon lawyer,” Pope said. “All of his education has been at St. John’s Seminary, except for two years [at Boston College].”

That is not to say, Pope was quick to point out, that Lennon does not have pastoral capacity. “I think he is a pastoral person by temperament. He’s a good person,” said Pope, who has worked with him on committees. “He’s a likeable, compassionate and sensitive person -- much less stiff and formal than his predecessor. He could be your postman or your butcher.”

As for the next archbishop of Boston, Pope said, Lennon would be “better than anyone with whom they could replace him.” Added Pope: “He’s not ambitious, not striving to get a cardinal’s hat. Ambition is part of what got us in this trouble.”

Lennon “has to be a Christian -- just be himself and a listener, and not threatened by what’s out there,” Pope added. “There’s a lot of goodwill toward him, a commitment to Catholicism, and good pastors.” Yet, said Pope, “he’s in a difficult position. He’s in the hierarchy -- between Rome and the people of Boston. It’s a balancing act.”

Free-lance writer Chuck Colbert writes from Cambridge, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, December 27, 2002