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Cardinal Law resigns; amid mounting pressure


Appropriately enough, Cardinal Bernard Law’s final act unfolded against the backdrop of a cold and gloomy Friday the 13th in Rome. Pope John Paul II today accepted Law’s brief resignation letter, ending months of speculation and capping a groundswell of demands for Law’s ouster from a wide cross-section of priests and laity in Boston.

Law becomes the most senior Catholic official to resign as a result of the sex abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic church in the United States since January. Its announcement followed a brief meeting between Law and John Paul the morning of Dec. 13, which, as it turns out, was less a moment of decision than a farewell.

“I am profoundly grateful to the Holy Father for having accepted my resignation as Archbishop of Boston,” Law wrote in a seven-sentence letter announcing the decision, which was issued in the Vatican press office at noon Rome time.

“To all those who have suffered from my shortcomings and mistakes I both apologize and from them beg forgiveness,” Law wrote. “The particular circumstances of this time suggest a quiet departure. Please keep me in your prayers.”

John Paul appointed Boston auxiliary Bishop Richard Gerard Lennon as the apostolic administrator of the archdiocese. Sources told NCR that the appointment of a permanent successor should happen quickly.

By the end, Law’s resignation had become “inevitable,” according to a Vatican official Dec. 13. The gesture ought to be seen as “an act of self-sacrifice,” the official told NCR.

Law’s resignation was only as archbishop of Boston. He remains a member of the college of cardinals and retains all the faculties of an ordained cleric. The 71-year-old Law would be eligible to help elect the next pope if a conclave occurs before he turns 80.

Law was expected to return to leave Rome for Boston over the weekend. A Vatican official confirmed that he will appear before a Massachusetts grand jury, in accord with a subpoena, on Dec. 17.

The Vatican offered no immediate word on what Law will do after resignation. Under other circumstances Law might be expected to take a long retreat, but it’s not clear if the various legal processes in which he figures will make that possible.

Law became the first Roman Catholic cardinal to resign under fire since Austria’s Hans Hermann Gröer in 1995, who stepped down amid charges that he had sexually abused novice monks when he served as a Benedictine abbot. The only other senior churchman in recent memory to resign not for personal misconduct, but for failing to respond to the misconduct of his priests, was Archbishop John Ward in the diocese of Cardiff in 2001.

Events unfolded quickly in Rome in the week leading up to the resignation.

Sources here say Vatican officials were influenced, in part, by the pressure that kept building in Boston among laity calling for his resignation. Especially significant was a letter signed by nearly 60 priests of the archdiocese calling for his resignation. Sources here said those events were seen as indicative that the crisis had grown beyond Law’s control.

Law left Boston unannounced, but was spotted on Sunday evening, Dec. 8, at a Roman restaurant by NCR. His dining companion that evening, American Bishop James Harvey, John Paul’s public secretary, informed Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls that the news was out, and Navarro released a declaration the next morning confirming Law’s presence.

At the beginning of the week, Vatican sources indicated that Law’s trip was motivated primarily by the need to discuss a possible bankruptcy in the Boston archdiocese. Navarro confirmed Dec. 12 that Law met with both Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, head of the Congregation for Bishops, and Dario Castrillon Hoyos, head of the Congregation for Clergy.

Sources told NCR that while the Vatican would not expressly prohibit a bankruptcy filing, since at some stage the archdiocese may run out of options, but it harbors deep reservations about the prospect.

Those include:

  • Impact on future donations to the church;
  • Ripple effects for other dioceses, which may find loans more expensive, contracts harder to negotiate, and insurance more difficult to obtain;
  • Interference in church affairs from the state, since a judge would take up broad powers over church assets.

John L. Allen Jr. is the Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org.

National Catholic Reporter, posted December 13, 2002