The Word from Rome
Behind Law’s Final Days

By John H. Allen, Jr.
National Catholic Reporter
December 20, 2002

In the aftermath of Cardinal Bernard Law’s Dec. 13 resignation, making him the 19th Catholic bishop to step down since 1990 in the wake of sex abuse scandals (including nine Americans, nine archbishops, and two cardinals), many observers are trying to understand, “Why now?” Given the Vatican’s traditional reluctance to cede to public pressure, and John Paul’s oft-stated aversion to a bishop renouncing spiritual paternity, why did the pope decide to let Law walk away after 11 months of riding out the storm?

A Law spokesperson has said that the cardinal made up his mind to resign on Dec. 5, then flew to Washington to inform the papal nuncio, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, who in turn urged him to go to Rome to communicate his decision directly to the pope. Yet it’s not so much Law’s will to resign that begs explanation, as the pope’s decision to accept it.

Most Vatican officials, off the record, seem to agree that three factors were paramount:

• A grand jury subpoena served to Law on Friday, Dec. 6;
• The threat of bankruptcy;
• A letter from 58 of Law’s priests calling for his resignation. [see the letter]

This final element was, according to Vatican sources, probably the most critical. On Monday and Tuesday, Dec. 9 and 10, the consensus was that Law would be told to stay on, as he had been last spring when he first offered to step aside. That shifted decisively on Wednesday, however, and most officials pointed to the impact of the priests’ letter. Seen from Rome, protests from American lay groups such as Voice of the Faithful can seem like just another expression of the noisy, confrontational political culture in the United States. When the rebellion comes from within the clerical fraternity, however, it’s much more difficult to ignore.

Is the Law story now over? Not quite.

Law’s resignation concerns only his role as head of the Boston archdiocese. He remains a cardinal, bishop, and priest. Among other implications, this means Law will continue to be a member of a number of congregations in the Roman curia. (The congregations are the most powerful decision-making organs of the papal bureaucracy). They include five with direct responsibility on issues relating to sexual abuse. They are: the Congregation for Bishops, the Congregation for Clergy, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life, the Congregation for Divine Worship, and the Congregation for Education.

The Congregation for Bishops supervises the performance of diocesan bishops, Clergy handles clerical discipline as well as diocesan finances, Consecrated Life oversees religious orders, Worship handles laicization cases, and Education is responsible for seminaries. Hence Law still has, at least theoretically, the right to be at the table when core aspects of Vatican policy on matters related to sexual abuse are hammered out.

Law’s membership in the Congregation for Bishops is especially striking, because it means that he could also have an official voice in the selection of his own successor in Boston. (He is one of three Americans to serve on Bishops, the others being William Baum and James Francis Stafford).

A senior Vatican official said Dec. 16 that while Law would not be asked to resign any of these posts, it is expected that he will use discretion and not participate when matters related to sexual abuse or Boston arise. It will be interesting to see if such informal assurances will satisfy critics.

In a Dec. 17 interview with NCR, David Clohessy of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests said the group intends to demand an “across the board” resignation by Law that would include stepping down as a cardinal. The Vatican official, meanwhile, said that such demands amount to a “genuine persecution” of Law.

The only man in the 20th century to resign from the College of Cardinals was Jesuit Louis Billot of France in 1927. Billot was a supporter of the right-wing Action Française movement, which was also accused of being anti-Semitic, and when Pius XI condemned it in 1926 Billot decided to protest by renouncing his red hat. He retired to the Jesuit novitiate in Galloro and died in 1931, four years later. Hence if Law were to step down as a cardinal, it would not quite be unprecedented, but the next thing to it.

In Boston, meanwhile, the Law story will not truly be over until a permanent successor is named. Vatican sources say the appointment will not be made in haste, and that Bishop Richard Lennon, the interim apostolic administrator, will be given time to turn things around before a new man is named. The transition, those sources say, will probably be measured in months rather than days or weeks.

In the United States, two names drawing attention as possible candidates are Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, and Archbishop Harry Flynn of St. Paul/Minneapolis, head of the Ad-Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse. Both are serious possibilities, though both are viewed with some reserve here in Rome.

Gregory is admired for his handling of the media, but his appointment of former Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating to head the National Review Board raised Vatican eyebrows, especially given Keating’s very public suggestion that Catholics unhappy with their bishop might withhold money or go to Mass outside the diocese. Flynn, meanwhile, was the architect of the sex abuse norms adopted by the bishops in Dallas in June, about which the Vatican had serious objections, leading to the formation of a special “mixed commission” in October. Flynn, however, has at least one powerful advocate in Rome: Italian Cardinal Pio Laghi, the pope’s ambassador to the United States from 1980 to 1990.

Other candidates whose names have surfaced in recent days include Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, head of the military archdiocese and a former rector of the North American College; Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh; Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport; Bishop Sean O’Malley of Palm Beach; and Archbishops Charles Chaput of Denver, Justin Rigali of St. Louis, and Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe.

Two footnotes.

Both O’Malley and Chaput are Capuchin Franciscans, making this perhaps the first time in recent memory that two Capuchins made anyone’s short list for a bishop’s appointment. The Capuchins, much to their credit, are not known for ecclesiastical ambition. (I say this as a product of six years of Capuchin education — and whether that is to their credit is best left to the reader’s judgment).

Finally, in a week full of non-stop TV and radio interviews, I was asked countless times to describe the “atmosphere” in the Vatican surrounding Law’s visit and his resignation. I got the impression that at least in the Anglo-Saxon world, many people assumed the Vatican must feel like the Nixon White House in 1975, with the same air of bitter defeat. In fact, however, the mood in the Apostolic Palace last week was actually fairly sprightly, due mostly to the approaching Christmas season, perhaps coupled with satisfaction over the pope’s physical improvement.

My evidence? On Thursday, Dec. 12, as Law’s resignation announcement was being drafted, I found myself in the papal apartment as part of a press pool covering the visit of the President of Singapore, S.R. Nathan. As several of us waited outside during the private encounter between the pope and Nathan, Bishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, then pope’s private secretary and closest advisor, emerged carrying a tray of Austrian chocolates. He walked around the room handing them out, beaming broadly, then stayed to banter with the photographers, joking that one of them looked like a Palestinian (the president of Israel was also on the pope’s schedule that day). Hence it would hardly be accurate to say that the pope’s inner circle was “hunkered down in crisis mode” as the Law saga played itself out.

On the other hand, sources also say that Dziwisz and others in the circle around the pope are increasingly concerned that the sex abuse scandals, which seemed months ago like isolated local incidents, now threaten to taint the closing phase of John Paul’s papacy. Taken together, they could paint a picture of subpar episcopal appointments and administrative neglect on John Paul’s watch. Certainly no one doubts the pope’s personal integrity, or his horror at revelations of sexual abuse of children by priests. It is a fair question, however, if more aggressive leadership from Rome might have spared an enormous amount of suffering, both by victims and by the church. Perhaps in some small measure, this concern, too, helps explain the papal change of heart on Law.


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