Church's Response to Sex Scandal Defies Logic

By Bill Wineke
Wisconsin State Journal [United States]
May 28, 2004

Ever wonder what the Vatican thinks about the sex-abuse scandal in the church? <

Pope John Paul II gave the answer Thursday: He appointed the American bishop most associated with the cover up of pervert priests to a new, prestigious job in Rome.

Cardinal Bernard Law, 72, who resigned as Archbishop of Boston in 2002 after investigations showed he covered up the sins of some of the worst abusers in the nation, will be the new archpriest of St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome.

The post is, apparently, largely ceremonial, but it restores Law to a position of honor and puts him in Rome, where his status as a cardinal will assure him a voice in all sorts of Vatican policies. When the day comes that the pope dies, Law will be one of those handful of men who pick his successor.

Sometimes I think I should stop writing about this subject. Nothing ever changes. When things - like the sexual-abuse scandal - pop up that embarrass the church's leaders, they mouth pieties, pass resolutions, and then go back to business as usual.

But every revelation these days seems to be more eye-popping than the one that preceded it.

Cardinal Law's job announcement came a day after the Archdiocese of Boston announced it was closing at least 65 parishes. That's one-fifth of the 375 parishes that make up the Boston church. It came a few months after the diocese agreed to pay $85 million to victims of some 550 pedophile priests, most of whom thrived during Law's tenure.

From a strictly business standpoint, one might call Law's reign a failure. His failures of oversight have devastated the church in Boston.

But clergy aren't really called to be businessmen. They are called to be the shepherds of souls.

If you read the stories of victims of clergy abuse, you find that the molestation wasn't the worst thing that happened to them and to their families. The worst thing that happened was that, when they turned to their bishops for help, they were first ignored, then threatened, then bought off.

The record is replete with people who lost their faith not because of abuse but because of the realization that the church hierarchy tolerated that abuse.

And the symbol of it all was Bernard Law, leader of the diocese that was ground zero for the abuse scandal, a great churchman who was the confidant of popes and of the rich and powerful throughout the country.

To be sure, he is a great man, a man with significant capabilities for leadership. If he weren't, he'd have never been in a position to fall so far. But fall he did.

Bernard Law just simply failed in his duty. His failures crippled his church, led to a loss of faith among many who were the most devout of his flocks, compromised the image of hundreds of innocent, hard-working priests and exposed his church to public ridicule.

The church's response was to send him to Rome, where he will occupy a position of great honor. St. Mary Major Basilica is one of four basilicas under direct Vatican jurisdiction and ministers to tourists from all over the world.

I suppose you might look at this appointment as a great example of redemption and of second chances. But I think most will see it as the Vatican taking care of one of its own and thumbing its nose at one of the worst scandals in church history.


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