Law Still Holds Key Vatican Positions

By John L. Allen, Jr.
National Catholic Reporter
December 27, 2002

Rome - With his Dec. 13 resignation in Rome, Cardinal Bernard Law may appear to have closed the book on his stormy tenure as archbishop of Boston. The reality, however, is that the story is far from finished, either for Law or for Boston.

For Law himself the question now seems to be “What’s next?” For Boston, however, it’s more like “Who’s next?”

One looming question for Law is whether his resignation as archbishop will satisfy critics, or whether new demands will arise that he also renounce his membership in the College of Cardinals. (Law’s Dec. 13 resignation concerned only his role as head of the church in Boston; hence he remains a cardinal, bishop and priest in good standing.)

As a cardinal, Law continues to be a member of several congregations, the key decision-making organs of the Vatican, which handle matters related to the sexual abuse crisis. They include:

• The Congregation for Bishops, which recommends new bishops to the pope and oversees the performance of bishops and bishops’ conferences;
• The Congregation for Clergy, which handles clerical discipline and oversees the financial management of dioceses (including the prospect of bankruptcy);
• The Congregation for Consecrated Life, which has the same responsibility for religious orders;
• The Congregation for Catholic Education, which oversees seminaries and priestly formation;
• The Congregation for Divine Worship, which handles cases of laicization of priests.

Law’s membership means that, at least theoretically, he could still be involved in setting Vatican policy on sex abuse issues. Perhaps most controversially, his membership in the Congregation for Bishops means that he could actually have a vote in the selection of his own successor in the Boston archdiocese.

Speaking on background, a Vatican official told NCR Dec. 16 that while Law would not be asked to resign these positions, there was an informal understanding that he would not participate when issues related to Boston or the sex abuse crisis arise.

That may not be enough to satisfy victims, according to David Clohessy of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, a victims’ rights group in the United States.

“If he wants to show he’s contrite, to persuade us that he really understands the depth of this crisis, he should resign across the board,” Clohessy told NCR Dec. 17. Clohessy said his group may send a letter to Pope John Paul II asking for Law’s resignation as a cardinal.

The Vatican official told NCR that demands for Law to give up his red hat amount to a “true persecution” of the cardinal that should be denounced, a characterization Clohessy rejected.

“This is not about punishing an individual, but about sending a message of hope and healing to thousands of individuals,” he said. “Law has done the bare minimum to escape this crisis.”

Law’s resignation as archbishop is unusual, but not unprecedented. Since 1990, 19 Roman Catholic bishops around the world have resigned amid sex abuse scandals, nine of them Americans. Nine, including Law, were archbishops.

Resigning from the College of Cardinals is far more rare. The only 20th century precedent came in 1927, when Cardinal Louis Billot of France returned his red hat in protest of Pius XI’s condemnation of the right-wing Action Française movement. Billot died in 1931 as a Jesuit priest, having never been ordained a bishop.

The other issue pertinent to Law’s personal fate is what he will do next by way of a full-time assignment. Immediately, Law is expected to take an extended retreat, perhaps as long as a few months. That intention, however, may be upended by a demanding schedule of appearances before a Massachusetts grand jury and in depositions in civil lawsuits.

After that, it’s not clear what the future might hold. Vatican sources have discouraged speculation of an assignment in Rome. As a cardinal, he would have to be given an executive assignment, and the Vatican generally does not want figures seen as politically wounded in those slots.

Some observers nevertheless believe a Vatican assignment could work.

“Law still has a lot of skills and giftedness, and to write that off would be a terrible mistake,” said Paulist Fr. Paul Robichaud, rector of the American parish in Rome, Santa Susanna, which is also Law’s titular church. “The Vatican may be the best place for him to continue to make a contribution.

“My hope is that he has resigned, but not retired,” Robichaud told NCR.

Beyond Law’s personal fate, much attention in both Boston and Rome is fastened on who his eventual successor might be. In terms of timing, a senior Vatican source told NCR that the hope is that the interim administrator, Bishop Richard Lennon, will be able to hold on for a period of a perhaps a few months so that a careful selection can be made. If the situation deteriorates, however, the process could be accelerated.

In addition to normal discernment about the needs of the diocese, sources say that a special consideration in this case is the need for certainty that the candidate has no skeletons in his closet -- meaning that he has never sexually abused anyone, and never transferred any priest who did.

Names mentioned, both in the United States and in Rome, for the Boston job include: Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference; Archbishop Harry Flynn of St. Paul/Minneapolis, head of the Ad-Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse; Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, head of the military archdiocese; Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver; Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh; Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn.; and Bishop Sean O’Malley of Palm Beach, Fla. Long-shot possibilities include Archbishops Justin Rigali of St. Louis and Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe.

While Gregory and Flynn are seen as leading candidates in the United States, Vatican sources express reservations about both. Gregory is admired in Rome for his handling of the media, but his appointment of former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating to head the National Review Board, especially given Keating’s suggestion that unhappy Catholics might withhold money or go to Mass outside their diocese, alarmed some. Flynn, meanwhile, was the architect of the sex abuse norms adopted by the bishops in Dallas in June, with which the Vatican had serious objections.

O’Brien was rector of the North American College in Rome from 1989 to 1994, where he earned respect. Lori is a member of the Ad-Hoc Committee on Sex Abuse and served on the U.S./Vatican “mixed commission” to put the new American sex abuse norms in final form. O’Malley, a Capuchin Franciscan, was installed as the new bishop of Palm Beach in October, following the resignation of the two previous bishops under accusations of sexual abuse. It’s thus likely that O’Malley was vetted carefully, an important consideration.

Given the depth of the crisis in Boston, few bishops seem to be straining for the assignment. Indeed, one bishop whose name has been floated as a possible successor to Law privately summed up his reaction for NCR this way:

“I’m delighted when I see such speculation, because headlines tend to kill any chance that it can happen!”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is


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