Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Catholic World News News Feature

A New Precedent February 04, 2003

by Philip F. Lawler

Angry Catholics had planned a massive demonstration for Sunday, December 8, outside Boston's Cathedral of the Holy Cross. When Cardinal Bernard Law arrived to celebrate Mass, the protest organizers planned to confront him, demanding his resignation. Hundreds of people were expected to participate, expressing their outrage over the cardinal's handling of sex-abuse complaints in the Boston archdiocese.

However, on the day before the scheduled protest, the organizers' plans hit a snag. The Boston archdiocese announced that Cardinal Law would not be celebrating Mass at the cathedral that Sunday. Donna Morrissey, the public spokesman for the archdiocese, offered no further details about the cardinal's schedule.

A full day passed quietly by. The protest outside the cathedral took place on schedule, but the crowd was not nearly as large as expected, and the participants seemed to have some difficulty mustering their sense of outrage against a man who was nowhere to be seen.

Then on Sunday afternoon, Cardinal Law was seen--not at his residence in Brighton, but in Rome. He was spotted by John Allen, the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, having dinner with Bishop James Harvey, the American-born prefect of the Pontifical Household.

So the people of Boston learned that their archbishop had quietly slipped out of town, for the second time in less than a year, to speak with Vatican officials about his future. In April, after a flurry of rumors that he would resign, Cardinal Law had dropped out of sight, traveled unannounced to Rome, and returned to say that he had been "encouraged" by a meeting with Pope John Paul II, and had resolved to stay at the helm of the Boston archdiocese "as long as God gives me the opportunity.' But this time, the cardinal's trip would have a different outcome.


The cardinal's sudden flight to Rome occurred at the end of a week that can only be described as disastrous. Throughout the calendar year the Church in Boston had been buffeted by a stream of revelations about the clerics who had abused children and the archdiocesan officials who had covered up their crimes. But not even a full year of adverse publicity had prepared local Catholics for the calamitous stories that hit the headlines, one after another, during the first week in December.

" On Monday, the media reported that the Boston archdiocese might file for bankruptcy protection, in the face of potential legal damages of approximately $100 million stemming from sex-abuse lawsuits.

" On Tuesday, lawyers representing sex-abuse victims released a new series of personnel files from the archdiocesan archives, showing that the pattern of quietly shifting predator priests from one parish to another had been more widespread than previously realized, and had apparently continued through 1999.

" On Wednesday, Cardinal Law met with the members of the archdiocesan finance council, and received their approval to proceed with a bankruptcy filing.

" On Thursday, the cardinal fueled the wrath of liberal clerics when he announced that the archdiocese would not sponsor any meetings at a particular parish in suburban Newton--a parish that had become closely identified with the cardinal's critics, where a group of dissident priests planned to meet the following day.

" On Friday, state troopers arrived at the cardinal's residence to deliver a subpoena requiring his testimony before a grand jury convened by the attorney general of Massachusetts, who was probing the possibility of criminal charges against officials who had concealed evidence of sexual abuse.

On Friday, Cardinal Law left town.


To this day, no one outside the cardinal's tightening circle of confidants knows exactly when Law slipped out of the city. Father Christopher Coyne, a Boston priest who has frequently acted as the cardinal's spokesman during the year of troubles, would later tell reporters that the cardinal had reached the conclusion by Thursday night, December 5, that he should offer his resignation. But another tumultuous week would pass before the people of the Boston archdiocese knew of that decision.

As late as Thursday afternoon, Cardinal Law was still keeping to his announced schedule. That evening he had planned to attend a fundraising dinner for the Catholic Action League, a conservative activist group. Just two hours before the event, the cardinal's priest-secretary called the organizers with a few last-minute questions about the program, explaining that he was helping Cardinal Law to prepare his remarks. Then the secretary called back again, explaining that the cardinal had been detained by an important conference call. Cardinal Law did not attend the dinner; his secretary arrived to tell the disappointed crowd that Law had been called into "urgent" meetings, related to the events that were dominating the headlines.

At that point, the embattled Archbishop of Boston slipped out of public view. His office was silent on Friday. He failed to appear at another fundraising event, for Catholic Charities, on Friday night. Even on Saturday, when his office revealed that the cardinal would not celebrate Sunday Mass at the cathedral, there was no indication that he was out of town. He was still expected to travel to Washington on Sunday night, for an annual meeting of the board of directors of Catholic University, of which he was chairman.

By Sunday night, however, the news of his trip to Rome had broken, and it was clear that Cardinal Law had more pressing concerns than the Catholic University board meeting. (On December 10--during the second day of the board meeting, while he was still in Rome--the cardinal would resign his position as the chairman of the university's board.)

When she was told that Cardinal Law had been spotted in Rome, Donna Morrissey confirmed that he had made the trip to consult with Vatican official, but offered no further information about his plans. On Monday the Vatican press office, hounded by American reporters for details about the cardinal's status, released a remarkably bland statement, which could have applied with equal accuracy to any of the dozens of bishops who travel to Rome on routine business in a given week: "Cardinal Law has come to Rome to inform the Holy See about the different aspects of the situation in Boston."

However, while the media continued to pester official Church spokesmen on both sides of the Atlantic, there was really no mystery about the reasons for the cardinal's unexpected trip. After all, this had happened once before.


Early in April, lawyers for sex-abuse victims had released the first devastating set of files from the archdiocesan archives, showing a seedy pattern of concealment, dishonesty, and indifference toward the plight of the victims. Cardinal Law's credibility was permanently damaged by the revelation that he had participated in the cover-up of abuse by Father Paul Shanley, a serial offender--and had even warmly recommended Shanley for positions in other dioceses.

The Shanley files hit Boston as a sort of secondary explosion, after a previous set of revelations in the case of John Geoghan, another abusive priest who had been defrocked only after years of molesting children. From the Geoghan case the Catholics of the Boston archdiocese had learned that their cardinal had covered the tracks of an abusive priest. But they could still believe that this was an isolated mistake. The Shanley case exposed a much broader, unmistakable pattern of corruption within the archdiocese.

That files that were released in April provoked howls of shock and outrage, and drew the first chorus of public calls for the cardinal's resignation. In response to the furor, Cardinal Law disappeared from public view for a full week, leaving Donna Morrissey to tell reporters that he was "in meetings and prayer."

As the days passed, and the cardinal remained incommunicado, reporters began to hear, and exchange, rumors that he would soon announce his resignation. On April 11 those rumors reached a crescendo. One reporter insisted that the cardinal would fax his resignation to the apostolic nuncio in Washington at exactly 11 that morning. Television sound trucks pulled up in a line beside the cardinal's Lake Street residence, waiting for the formal announcement, in an exercise that grim journalists likened to a "death watch."

But the following day, Cardinal Law--who was still in seclusion--sent a letter to the priests of Boston indicating that he planned to stay. "My desire is to serve this archdiocese and this whole Church with every fiber of my being," he wrote. "This I will continue to do as long as God makes it possible."

Only several days later--on April 17--did the cardinal disclose that he had not traveled secretly to Rome that week "to seek counsel and advice." In a fresh public statement he reported that Vatican officials were now "very conscious of the gravity of the situation," and explained that he had explicitly discussed the calls for his retirement. After meeting with the Pope, he said that he had returned home "encouraged in my efforts to provide the strongest possible leadership in ensuring, as far as is humanly possible, that no child is ever abused again by a priest of this archdiocese."

That April statement was not incompatible with rumors that Cardinal Law had offered to resign, and that Pope John Paul II had asked him to remain in Boston. In December, when he traveled to the Vatican once again, reporters in Rome stated flatly that Cardinal Law had indeed submitted his resignation in April, and the Pope had rejected it. That report has never been confirmed by any authoritative source either in Boston or in Rome.


Whether or not he had been prepared to resign in April, as the months passed and he remained in office, Cardinal Law seemed to have weathered the storm. For several months he preserved a low profile, but gradually he began to resume his public leadership role. He attended World Youth Day festivities in Toronto with a friendly delegation of teenagers from Boston. He participated in the ribbon-cutting ceremonies for a bridge dedicated to the memory of a Jewish community activist with whom he had been particularly friendly. He voiced his support for janitors who were engaged in a labor dispute with the City of Boston. He participated in an annual pro-life rally on Boston Common.

On November 4, standing before the altar of Holy Cross cathedral he delivered what seemed to be designed as a definitive apology for his role in the sex-abuse scandal. "I want to acknowledge publicly my responsibility for decisions that I know see as clearly wrong," the cardinal said, his voice cracking as he spoke. "The forgiving love of God gives me the courage to beg forgiveness of those who have suffered because of what I did."

Barely a week later, the cardinal was in the headlines again--and for the first time in 2002, the topic was something other than sexual abuse. Cardinal Law served as the principal spokesman for the US bishops' conference in questioning the wisdom of US policy toward Iraq. He made an appearance at an Islamic mosque in Boston, and bowed to venerate the Qu'ran along with the Muslim believers. His prominence in these new roles drew sharp criticism--from defenders of US foreign policy in the former instance, and critics of religious indifferentism in the latter--but they signaled the cardinal's return to the limelight.

Still the sex-abuse scandal would not go away. All through the year the Boston archdiocese had been battling--in most cases, unsuccessfully--to prevent new disclosures. Full transcripts of Cardinal Law's depositions in the Shanley case had been made public, as had similar testimony other Boston bishops; critical analysts quickly pointed out discrepancies between the prelates' sworn testimony and previous public statements from the archdiocese. A steady trickle of fresh allegations and new revelations had eroded the cardinal's public standing.

Meanwhile Judge Constance Sweeney, who had been assigned to preside over all the cases associated with the Boston sex-abuse scandal, had become increasingly impatient with the efforts by archdiocesan lawyers to slow the proceedings.

Late in November, Judge Sweeney ruled against the archdiocese yet again, authorizing the public release of new files in connection with the Sweeney case. In doing so, the judge made it clear that she was losing her patience with the desultory legal tactics employed by the archdiocesan lawyers. And she raised some doubts about the accuracy of statements made by Church leaders. Judge Sweeney wrote:

The actual discovery material before the court includes statements from Cardinal Law that between 1984 and 1989 some offending priests were returned to active ministry when, after treatment, archdiocesan personnel and the cardinal determined they did not present risks of harm to children. Despite this assertion, other archdiocesan records obtained through discovery reveal that some offending priests may well have been assigned to parishes, youth groups and the like, even though the cardinal or other archdiocesan personnel knew that the priests in question were at the least suspected of engaging in continuing sexual encounters with children.


The negative publicity was compounded by complaints from some priests who insisted that they had been falsely accused of sexual abuse. Dozens of clerics had been suspended from priestly ministry under a sweeping new archdiocesan policy. Some priests complained that they had never been informed of the charges against them, or given an opportunity to respond to the accusations.

The most bizarre of these cases involved Msgr. Michael Smith Foster, a top canon lawyer and official on the archdiocesan tribunal. In August, Msgr. Foster was suspended from ministry after being accused of molesting a young man nearly 20 years earlier. Almost immediately the accusations against Msgr. Foster were questioned--at first by other witnesses, later by the accuser's own lawyer. On September 4 a lawsuit against Msgr. Foster was withdrawn, and on September 10 the priest was told that his suspension had been revoked.

However, archdiocesan officials still had not met the accuser, and when they did, on September 12, he repeated his charges. The investigation of the prominent cleric was immediately re-opened, and once again he was suspended. Msgr. Foster remained in ecclesiastical limbo until October 30, when--without apology or explanation--Cardinal Law informed him that the investigation had concluded, and he could return to active ministry. (In December the Boston Herald added a new wrinkle to the complicated story, discovering gaping holes in the archdiocesan investigation of the case, and concluding that Church officials had exonerated Foster on the basis of patently inaccurate information.)

Msgr. Foster now became the symbol of priests' fears that they could expect no sympathy from the chancery if they were accused--accurately or inaccurately--of child abuse. Msgr. Foster himself said that he was "angry at the treatment I have received." He wondered aloud why the archdiocese had not come to his defense, pointing out to the Boston Globe that "we have put a lot of resources into helping the cardinal with reputational issues."

By now unhappy priests were joining sex-abuse victims in their open criticism of Cardinal Law. Lay activists, too, joined the chorus. The group known as Voice of the Faithful took root in Boston, and although the organization had national ambitions it gained particular strength in the Boston archdiocese by calling Church leaders to accountability. Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) was viewed with open suspicion by archdiocesan officials, and Cardinal Law resisted efforts to meet with the group's leaders. More conservative Catholic laymen were also suspicious of the new group, wondering why VOTF--whose leaders insisted that it was a "moderate" organization--was so reluctant to stake out a clear position on controversial issues such as homosexuality or the ordination of women. But VOTF enjoyed a cozy relationship with the editorial staff of the Boston Globe: a newspaper with enormous power in the local market, and a relentless hostility toward the teachings of the Catholic Church.

In the fall of 2002, VOTF was joined on the scene by the Boston Priests' Forum, which claimed a membership of 200 among the roughly 1,000 priests active in the archdiocese. The most visible leaders of the Priests' Forum were two outspoken liberal priests, Father Walter Cuenin and Father Robert Bullock.

The case of Father Cuenin, like that of Msgr. Foster, deserves a bit of special notice. Years ago, while he was teaching at the archdiocesan seminary, Father Cuenin had decided to abandon the priesthood. But after several months living as a layman he returned to the archdiocese, was reinstated as a priest--and was immediately re-assigned to resume young prospective priests at St. John's Seminary. Over the years Father Cuenin has been one of the most voluble theological dissidents among Boston's priests, yet he had been appointed by Cardinal Law to head one of the most attractive parishes in the archdiocese: Our Lady, Help of Christians, in the affluent suburb of Newton. From that highly visible post, Father Cuenin began to issue statements to friendly media outlets, until reporters developed the habit of calling his Newton parish for a reaction whenever Cardinal Law issued a statement on the sex-abuse scandal. Father Cuenin also became a leading spokesman for VOTF, and his parish became the de facto headquarters of the activist group.


By early December, then, Cardinal Law was facing a variety of serious challenges. VOTF and the Priests' Forum were directly challenging his authority. Judge Sweeney was questioning his credibility. An archdiocesan fundraising campaign was foundering. Mass attendance was dropping. Sex-abuse accusations--and the lawsuits that inevitably followed--were proliferating. So the stage was set for that disastrous first week in December.

For several weeks knowledgeable lawyers had whispered that the Boston archdiocese was investigating the implications of filing for bankruptcy, in anticipation of $100 million in damages from sex-abuse lawsuits. At first the rumors had been dismissed as mere speculation; cynics suggested that the archdiocesan lawyers were trying to frighten the plaintiffs into a quick settlement. But by December 2 it was clear that the discussion of bankruptcy was not merely an idle gambit; the option was being seriously considered by archdiocesan officials.

The active discussion of bankruptcy--the first in the week's series of scandals--was condemned by Father Robert Bullock as "blasphemous." Speaking as a representative of the Priests' Forum, he said that the move "would be outrageous and unbearable--pastorally and theologically and spiritually disastrous." When the archdiocesan finance council gave Cardinal Law the green light to proceed with a bankruptcy filing, Father Bullock was one of several commentators who remarked that financial bankruptcy might be an appropriate symbol, since the Boston archdiocese was already spiritually bankrupt.

Next came the release of a new set of personnel files, confirming the pattern--now depressingly familiar--in which archdiocesan officials had sloughed off complaints about clerical sex-abuse, shuffled the guilty clerics from one parish to another, concealed evidence of wrongdoing from the public, and provided the offending clerics with glowing recommendations even after they confessed their misdeeds.

The details of the new revelations were stunning, even to readers who had been hardened by the previous disclosures of the Geoghan and Shanley cases:

" Father Robert Meffan had routinely molested naïve young girls who were planning to enter the convent, telling them that by performing sexual favors for him they were showing their love for Christ. When he was finally approved for retirement, Cardinal Law wrote to tell him: "We are truly grateful for your priestly are and ministry to all whom you have served." The cardinal's letter gave absolutely no indication of any misbehavior.

" Father Peter Frost confessed that he was a homosexual "sex addict" who had molested boys for 20 years. Cardinal Law wrote to him: "It is my hope that some day in the future you will return to an appropriate ministry, bringing with you the wisdom which emerges from difficult experience."

" Father James Foley had been involved with a troubled woman who died of a drug overdose in the 1960s; he was present when she lost consciousness, but did not call for help because he was in a compromising position. Over the years he had fathered two children, and carried on relationships with three married women. He was still assigned to active parish ministry in December 2002 when these stories surfaced.

Even before these new stories came to light, the pressure on Cardinal Law had been enormous. Now it became overwhelming. James Post, the president of Voice of the Faithful, said that the cardinal could no longer function as a pastoral leader. "We are a diocese without a bishop," he said. Speaking in more measured tones, Robert Bennet, a member of the National Review Board set up by the US bishops to handle sex-abuse complaints, told the New York Times: "The board is very troubled about the most recent revelations that show that the abuse and its handling was more aggravated than we thought before." The most vituperative reaction came from Adrian Walker, a regular columnist for the Boston Globe: "How can any sane person worship at an altar presided over by a cleric who provided the support - I refuse to call it moral support--to sick, depraved priests that Cardinal Bernard F. Law did?"

Some 58 members of the Priests' Forum quickly attached their signatures to an open letter urging Cardinal Law to resign. "While this is obviously a difficult request, we believe in our hearts that this is a necessary step," the priest wrote, explaining that "your position as our bishop is already so compromised that it is no longer possible for you to exercise the spiritual leadership required for the Church in Boston." But by the time that letter was hand-delivered to the cardinal's residence, Law was already in Rome.


Neither the Boston archdiocese nor the Holy See would comment on the cardinal's reasons for traveling to Rome, or even divulge his schedule of meetings with Vatican officials. But Church officials did concede that there were two topics on the agenda: the prospect of a bankruptcy filing by the Boston archdiocese--which would have to be approved in advance by the Holy See--and the future of Cardinal Law.

American bankruptcy law offered several attractive possibilities for the archdiocese. A bankruptcy filing could bring an end to the exhausting sequence of new sex-abuse lawsuits, new depositions, and new revelations. The bankruptcy could would consolidate all existing complaints, shut the door (after a firm deadline) to all new lawsuits, and stop the release of new testimony. The agonizing public trial of the Boston archdiocese, which had been conducted primarily through the media for 11 months, could be brought to a merciful end.

A bankruptcy filing would also put heavy pressure on other parties to cooperate in a quick settlement. Insurance carriers for the Boston archdiocese had been expressing a reluctance to pay off sex-abuse claims, reasoning that Church officials had been negligent in their duties. But American bankruptcy courts are notoriously unsympathetic toward insurance companies; their payments--amounting to as much as $90, from a total settlement estimated at $100 million--would almost surely be forthcoming. Plaintiffs' lawyers had been aggressively pushing for a higher settlement price, but bankruptcy courts are also notorious for pruning lawyers' fees.

If archdiocesan officials had introduced the discussion of bankruptcy as a bargaining ploy, to push plaintiffs' lawyers toward a speedy settlement, the gambit was successful. When they learned that Cardinal Law was in Rome, and realized that he could return with the authority in initiate bankruptcy proceeding immediately, lawyers for the sex-abuse victims betrayed a keen interest in reaching a quick out-of-court settlement for their claims.

But in Rome, Vatican officials were far less enthusiastic about the bankruptcy option. After all, they reasoned, the Archdiocese of Boston could manage even $100 million in settlement costs, if necessary. Under the circumstances, a plea of bankruptcy might be interpreted as an effort to deprive the victims of the full compensation to which they were legally entitled. And while the niceties of US bankruptcy law might be attractive to American lawyers, the Vatican had to consider the implications of the move for Catholics in other countries. The stigma attached to a bankruptcy filing--especially by an affluent American see--would have serious repercussions for the universal Church. By all indications, Vatican officials took a dim view of the bankruptcy option, and the discussion in Rome turned toward the future of Boston's archbishop.


As Cardinal Law's visit to Rome continued, stories of his impending resignation were circulating widely through the American media. On Thursday, December 12, several media outlets reported that he had already formally submitted his resignation. The Vatican promptly denied that story, but disclosed that the American cardinal would meet privately with Pope John Paul II on the following day.

By now, American media outlets were buzzing with speculation about an impending resignation. Dozens of reporters were working their contacts in Rome, and even if they could only draw responses from minor Vatican officials, the second-hand reports all pointed in the same direction: If Cardinal Law had not yet submitted his resignation, he would do so when he met with the Pope.

When the news finally broke, on Friday the 13th, it was anti-climactic. Cardinal Law had met with the Pope. He had offered his resignation. The Pontiff had accepted it. Bishop Richard Lennon, a Boston auxiliary, had been appointed as apostolic administrator, to head the archdiocese until a new archbishop could be named.

Although it had been widely anticipated--and was generally seen as long overdue--the fall of a powerful prelate like Cardinal Law is the sort of story that prompts reporters to pause and reflect on the implications: How did it happen? What does it mean?

When he was appointed Archbishop of Boston in 1984, Bernard Law was seen as a rising star in the ecclesiastical firmament. He was a comparatively young prelate, with obvious talent and ambition; could he be the first American Pope? Elevated to the College of Cardinals in 1985, by 2002 he was the senior member of the US hierarchy. He had displayed his influence repeatedly, as his former auxiliary bishops were assigned to head their own dioceses: Archbishops Alfred Hughes of New Orleans, Louisiana, and Roberto Gonzalez of San Juan, Puerto Rico; Bishops Thomas Daily of Brooklyn, New York; John D'Arcy of Fort Wayne, Indiana; Robert Banks of Green Bay, Wisconsin; John McCormack of Manchester, New Hampshire; William Murphy of Rockville Centre, New York; and Daniel Hart of Norwich, Connecticut.

But now several of those former Boston auxiliaries--Bishops Daily, McCormack, Murphy, and Banks--face questions about their own conduct in Boston's sex-abuse scandal. Like Cardinal Law, each of these bishops had been involved in the cover-up of priestly sexual abuse. And if a powerful prelate like Cardinal Law can fall, can these less prominent bishops survive?

A precedent has been set. Ultimately Cardinal Law was forced to step down because his handling of the sex-abuse crisis had betrayed a shocking indifference to the spiritual welfare of his flock. But how many other American bishops have been equally indifferent to the true demands of pastoral leadership?

As soon as Cardinal Law's resignation became public, secular media outlets began asking whether other bishops would be forced to follow his example. Their attention naturally swung to the north of Boston, to the adjoining New Hampshire diocese now headed by Bishop John McCormack. The former Boston auxiliary, clearly feeling the pressure, released a public statement objecting to the criticism that was leveled against him. "Among the many choices and decisions that I have made as a priest and bishop, my mistakes and failings have been lifted up, scrutinized and characterized by some to be such that I am a harmful person or one who lacks moral character," he lamented. "Little consideration is being given to any good that I have done in the past, and many are being led to question whether I can do any good in the present or in the future."

But questions about Bishop McCormack's future are not unreasonable. Early in December, while the national media spotlight was fixed on Cardinal Law, the bishop entered into an agreement with New Hampshire's top prosecutors, conceding that the Manchester diocese--before and after he took control--had been guilty of violations sufficient to warrant criminal prosecution. In explaining the import of the bishop's admissions, the state's attorney general Philip McLaughlin observed: "The diocese acknowledges the state has evidence likely to sustain a conviction."

Thanks to that agreement with prosecutors, the New Hampshire diocese will be spared from a prosecution. But in the wake of Cardinal Law's resignation, no American bishop can be immune from the often unhappy consequences of public scrutiny.