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Issue Date:  April 22, 2005

Law's power a symbol of deeper crisis

The flap over Cardinal Bernard Law’s appearance as celebrant of one of the nine Masses at St. Peter’s Basilica during the period of mourning for the late Pope John Paul II may seem a minor dustup in the long trajectory of the clergy sex abuse scandals.

After all, only two people showed up to protest, the Mass went on as scheduled, the controversy was not expected to have an effect on the conclave, and the headlines faded quickly.

What will not fade, however, is the power of symbol to evoke deeper truths and to raise unsettling questions. Law’s presence in the limelight once more -- not before the media answering long-standing questions about the diocese he left in disarray, but as a representative of the church in a high-profile setting, a place of honor -- was an unbelievably inept and insensitive move.

Offensive as that was to victims of sexual abuse, even more damaging to the wider church is Law’s continuing membership on some of the most powerful congregations and councils in Rome. Someone who has caused such great damage to a major diocese through mismanagement and ultimately the cover-up of child sex abuse should not be allowed near the levers of power in the church.

Vatican defenders of Law suggest that he has already paid for what he did in Boston by losing that see, and they say his appointment in 2004 as archpriest of St. Mary Major in Rome merely acknowledged a lifetime of service to the church, that it was a sign that the church believes in forgiveness and redemption for everyone.

If the sex abuse scandal and resulting crises of authority and credibility in the church could be so easily collapsed into such notions of forgiveness and redemption, the matter would have been over long ago. It isn’t that easy. The community can forgive but still waits for an accounting.

We’ll leave it to God and to those affected by Law’s conduct in the scandal to deal personally with such deeply individual matters. That is not to suggest that the community cannot forgive and acknowledge an individual’s redemption within it. But it is intolerable, both to the community and to those individuals whose lives have been so seriously affected by Law’s actions, to suggest that continued pursuit of accountability is equivalent to a lack of forgiveness.

What the Vatican’s explanation seems to imply is that we should not only forgive but also become reconciled to Law in a way that would mean discontinuing any discussion of what happened in Boston and to stop connecting it to what is happening now.

But reconciliation cannot be forced; it depends as much on acknowledgment of what went wrong as it does the will of both parties to reconcile. Reconciliation holds within it expectations of justice, of a certain equanimity between parties, of a meeting of minds. Such cannot happen at a distance or by wish or imposition.

It bears repeating that the sex abuse crisis is no longer mostly about sexual abuse. It is more enduringly a crisis of authority and accountability. Law lost his position in the United States only after a torrent of bad publicity and enormous pressure from priests and laity in the archdiocese.

Anyone who reads through the relevant and extensive correspondence of not only Law but his auxiliary bishops -- many of whom went on to positions of greater responsibility -- as well as through the depositions he gave can only conclude that Law was fortunate to get out of Boston and the United States without facing greater legal consequences.

His handling of the crisis and his words led to a deepening of the scandal for Catholics, greater pain for victims of priest abusers and a perilous financial crisis that has led to a disruption of church life in the Boston area.

That such gross breaches of trust with the Catholic community should continue to be rewarded with positions of power in Rome exacerbates the scandal and continues to erode confidence and trust in the institutional church.

As NCR Rome correspondent John L. Allen Jr. has reported, Law continues to serve as a full member on a total of eight Vatican congregations and councils, including the Congregation for Bishops, the Congregation for Clergy, the Congregation for Consecrated Life and the Societies of Apostolic Life and the Congregation for Catholic Education. Those posts represent the potential for significant influence over both the direction and leadership of the church.

Vatican officials may not yet understand the strong feelings expressed by Americans about the crisis and the lack of accountability on the part of bishops. But we’re used to systems, imperfect as they are, that bring to account, regardless of position or financial standing, those found to seriously violate the public trust.

The wonder is not that two protesters flew 5,000 miles to make a point about accountability. The wonder is that we have yet to hear similar calls from Law’s peers in the hierarchy. The church could use that kind of first step toward reclaiming the moral credibility that was so seriously damaged in recent years.

National Catholic Reporter, April 22, 2005

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