Exiled to Rome
Cardinal Law's New Posting May Not Be Golden Parachute His Critics Think It Is

By Melinda Hennberger
June 2, 2004

It isn't tough to figure why some Catholics are outraged by Cardinal Bernard Law's recent appointment to a pleasant-sounding ceremonial post in Rome. The sexual abuse of children tends to have that effect on people.

Still, Law's critics seem not to have noticed that, at least where he is concerned, they have already carried the day. In thousands of cases across the country, church leaders protected their fellow priests instead of the kids who were being molested. Yet Law, at the epicenter of this tragedy as archbishop of Boston, was uniquely humbled. He is the one high-ranking Catholic leader implicated in the scandals whose head has already rolled.

Rightly so, of course. Though the church does not enjoy a surfeit of leaders of his intellect, talent and, in a different time, courage'Law was targeted by segregationists for his work in Mississippi during the civil-rights movement'he failed as shepherd of his flock on the most basic possible level.

I always respected Law, and took no pleasure in his fall'though those whose children suffered as a result of his lapses might be forgiven for feeling otherwise. In transferring known abusers to other parishes, he allowed their crimes to continue. And ultimately, he forfeited his considerable power, standing and moral authority as a result.

On Dec. 13, 2002, he finally resigned, issuing this brief statement: 'To all those who have suffered from my shortcomings and mistakes I both apologize and from them beg forgiveness ' The particular circumstances of this time suggest a quiet departure. Please keep me in your prayers.'

Then the man who had been the most powerful Roman Catholic prelate in the country moved to a small convent outside Washington, D.C., where he had been serving as a chaplain until last week, when the Vatican announced his new 'job' presiding over the tourists at St. Mary Major Basilica, an appointment that was immediately criticized. David Clohessy, of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, asked, 'Can't the Vatican officials see that any position of honor afforded to Law will inevitably and needlessly cause more pain to hundreds who have ' already suffered enough' It just rubs salt into already deep wounds.' David Gibson, author of 'The Coming Catholic Church,' said the timing 'couldn't be worse. They're just cleaning up the mess in Boston and closing parishes, and he's getting the ultimate golden parachute.' But is he?

Law may well be happier living in Italy, where, it's true, the devastating effects of the sex scandal were never fully understood. At the height of the scandal, many in the Curia agreed with Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiago of Honduras when he blamed the American news media for 'what I do not hesitate to define as a persecution against the church' and said American journalists betrayed 'a fury which reminds me of the times of Diocletian and Nero and, more recently, Stalin and Hitler.'

Yet the position Law has been given in Rome is not a reward but on the contrary, another comedown. Yes, Santa Maria Maggiore is a gorgeous church, built over and around an ancient basilica on the Esquiline Hill. But having spent some quiet hours there myself, all but alone with Torriti's Coronation of the Virgin, I can assure you that this appointment is anything but a victory for Law's power base.

Typically, the archpriest of the basilica is a retired prelate, and Law may have even less to do there than he did back at the convent of the Sisters of Mercy of Alma in Clinton, Md. (In a spirited online chat about Law's new job on the Catholic World News Web site, someone signed on as Father B. observed, 'The good news is that someone may finally be in a position of power to deal with the pigeon problem at St. Mary Major. Bernie, grab a broom and a scrub brush.')

Beyond the nice language of the press release, the appointment strikes me less like a way for Law to save face than for Boston Catholics to save money. What the Vatican has actually done here is save the already financially struggling Catholic churches of Boston from having to fund Law's retirement. He's off their books now, at age 72. And in a sense, relieving Boston of that financial burden may be the closest Rome has ever come to accepting a tangible measure of responsibility in the scandal.


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