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Without reform, Boston’s relief will be fleeting

Out here in the heartland, one could feel the relief that went through the Boston archdiocese when the news finally arrived that Cardinal Bernard Law had resigned as archbishop.

What seemed inevitable for months -- how can a leader lead if no one follows? -- ultimately took the persistent opposition of thousands of lay Catholics and a final push from some very courageous priests of the archdiocese. The letter from the priests expressing both the people’s and their own lack of confidence in Law is said to have pushed the decision over the top in Rome. We believe the priests are as genuinely sad over having to take the action as they were dismayed by the ongoing revelations of both sex abuse committed by their peers and the cardinal’s role in transferring those priests and in writing glowing letters to the abusers.

Any Catholic knows it is not a smart career move for a priest to openly challenge his bishop. But the needs of the community in this case far outweighed career considerations for some. They are the ones who proved themselves true pastors. They are the ones who understood what had to be done to protect the unity and integrity of the church.

The priests and their decision to act is one glimmer of hope in this sad and tragic episode of U.S. church history. Another is the sustained activism of loyal Catholics who sensed that their unusual acts of organizing into such groups as Voice of the Faithful were necessary, again to preserve the integrity of the church and to call officials to account.

While we’re handing out kudos, at least one more must go to Bishop John D’Arcy, a former Boston auxiliary who has been bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., since 1985.

Beginning in 1978, D’Arcy was apparently the lone voice among Boston Catholic bishops to consistently warn against moving priests who had been credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors and other questionable behavior. He repeatedly wrote letters to Law and to other auxiliary bishops warning of the dangers posed by priests known to be sexually abusive.

It could not have been easy to raise the issues at that point in the archdiocese’s history. After all, most of the other members of the Boston hierarchy during that period, if the records and documents released give any indication, were complicit in moving abusers from assignment to assignment and ignoring the pleas of victims.

Two of those auxiliaries, Alfred C. Hughes of New Orleans and Thomas Daily of Brooklyn, N.Y., were named archbishops. Others named to head sees of their own are Bishops Robert Banks of Green Bay, Wis., John McCormack of Man-chester, N.H., and William Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y. It appears that scrutiny of their roles in the Boston sex abuse scandal will continue with the release of documents and the pressure from victims.

Some still insist that bishops failed to act to control priests who sexually abused youngsters because they knew too little about the problem. D’Arcy’s assessments constitute the clearest evidence that very early in the scandal someone understood dangerous behavior when he saw it and issued warnings that, had they been heeded, may well have protected children from further abuse.

Law’s departure is but one step in a long process of sorting out legalities and figuring out the steps needed to heal the wounds and breaches inside the Catholic community.

If taken some months ago, Law’s leaving might have proved a significant step toward healing. At this point, Law’s leaving is just one more forced action in a long line of opportunities missed by America’s Catholic hierarchy.

Relieved as we might be that he finally left center stage in Boston, we also recognize that the scandal that came to light a year ago does not define Law’s entire career. He was, in his earlier years, one of the leaders who personally placed the church in the forefront of the struggle for civil rights in the South, and he later advocated strongly for the poor and sometimes acted boldly in the interfaith arena (see story Page 7).

His leaving marks an unprecedented moment in U.S. Catholic history. Whether it also marks the beginning of a new era in church governance remains to be seen. If essential reforms in how the church is governed, in areas of accountability and in the involvement of laypeople in church decision-making are not part of the longer healing process, the relief felt in Boston in recent days will be short-lived.

National Catholic Reporter, December 27, 2002