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Reaction To Cardinal Law's Resignation Is Mixed

This article is more than 11 years old.

There is mixed reaction to the news that the Vatican has accepted the resignation of the man who became the face of the clergy abuse scandal.

Cardinal Bernard Law is leaving the position he’s held at the Vatican for seven years — leading St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome. It’s a largely ceremonial role presiding over an ornate Vatican church. But Law also served behind the scenes at the Vatican on several powerful committees. He helped choose new bishops and he was among those who voted on a papal successor. However, when Law turned 80 years old this month, he automatically had to relinquish some of his responsibilities, according to John Allen, senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.

"For a good stretch of time, Cardinal Law continued to play a fairly influential role behind the scenes in shaping Vatican policy and it is that influence now drawing to a close because of his 80th birthday," Allen said.

"No matter how you look at it, Cardinal Law's legacy in Boston is clergy sex abuse, and it's a time bomb that continues to tick away for the Catholic Church."

Peter Borre, chairman of the Council of Parishes

Allen said Law's departure should come as no surprise and he believes there is nothing to be read into the way the Vatican handled it. Rome released a brief statement Monday only mentioning Law's replacement at St. Mary Major, and not Law himself. Many people here in Massachusetts did read into that.

"It is subtle but noteworthy that there is no mention of the fellow being replaced,” said Peter Borre, chairman of the Council of Parishes, the group formed after the abuse scandal to support churches slated to close. Borre said for someone of Law's stature, who still retains his title of cardinal, the Vatican should have said more.

"He had a position of power within the Archdiocese of Boston but also a position of enormous influence, because he was basically the first person that the senior managers of the Catholic Church would look to if there was an issue involving the United States,” Borre said.

Prior to being named Boston's archbishop in 1984, Law had no connection to Massachusetts except for his education at Harvard. Although that was before Law entered the seminary, there is one widely circulated story about his legendary ambition in the church. Harvard classmates reportedly say Law's nickname was "His Holiness" because Law made it clear then that he wanted to be the first pope from the U.S. And early during his career, Law became known for his work on social justice issues as a priest in Mississippi in the 1960s.

"People, I think, thought that he would do a lot of good here," said Terry McKiernan, president of the group According to McKiernan, Law got caught up in power and then covered up for abusive priests.

"Now we know from all the documents that he used that powerful position to keep priests in ministry who were sexually abusing children, and he knowingly did that and then was rewarded for that, even after his resignation,” McKiernan said.

McKiernan, as well as many abuse survivors, say that while they are relieved Law is stepping down from his Vatican job, they are still angry he even had it in the first place.

Bernie McDaid, one of the first survivors to meet directly with the Vatican, compares the recent Penn State scandal to the church's.

"So you have 18 boys at Penn State and everybody's outraged at what's happened,” McDaid said. “Eighteen boys. How many kids throughout the world are being abused where they pray and nobody's doing anything about it? The Catholic Church apparently is above the law and nobody has yet to stand up for survivors."

Since Law left Boston, the clergy abuse scandal widened around the world. Thousands of priests have been charged. Here in Massachusetts, more than 200 priests are accused and the wrangling continues over releasing their names. The archdiocese paid out more than $129 million in legal settlements and about one-third of the churches in Massachusetts have closed since 2002.

Borre said that is how Law will be remembered.

"No matter how you look at it, Cardinal Law's legacy in Boston is clergy sex abuse, and it's a time bomb that continues to tick away for the Catholic Church,” he said.

It's unclear what Law will do from here or where he will do it. Allen said Law probably would be better off to stay on the other side of the Atlantic.

“For many American Catholics, the only thing that counts is the fact that Cardinal Law became the poster boy for the sex abuse crisis in the U.S.,” Allen said. "I think here (in Rome) he’ll be remembered as someone who served the church faithfully.”

Law has not commented. The Boston Archdiocese deferred comment to the Vatican.


This program aired on November 22, 2011.

Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.



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