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    A Times Editorial

    More moral equivocation

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published December 8, 2002

    Cardinal Bernard Law has done enough damage to the Roman Catholic Church that he needn't look for ways to further erode his moral credibility. That he would allow the Boston Archdiocese to consider using the bankruptcy laws to blunt the torrent of sex-abuse lawsuits is offensive on every front. Bankruptcy would give Law the chance to abuse the victims yet again. Church leaders need to think beyond power and money and about the real pain they caused.

    Law never got it, but it was reasonable to expect he would show contrition and do whatever was reasonable to make the lawsuits go away. Last week, a finance arm of the archdiocese gave Law the green light to pursue Chapter 11 protection. The move could consolidate claims against the church for its protection of predatory priests. For Law, it could spare him more personal embarrassment and delay and limit whatever monetary settlement victims ultimately get.

    These might be legitimate points for the average CEO to consider, but Law's trouble is largely of his own making. The financial strains now imposed on the diocese have their roots at the very top -- in Law's duplicity and protection of abusive priests. And what about the moral dimension? Are we comforted by the sight of Catholic cardinals as spiritualists of convenience, who leave right and wrong to the lawyers, who put dollar signs on suffering, who dodge responsibility for their sins?

    Even the most charitable spin is that the church is using the threat of bankruptcy to drive down the price of a final settlement of several hundred claims. But this is where Law should have put his moral duty ahead of the church's financial pain. Law and Boston are the epicenter of the crisis; how they react to a dark secret now exposed sets the church's image nationwide. Watching them toy with coercive tactics only serves to remind a shocked public how so many child victims were forced into silence years ago.

    What's playing out in Boston is a question for the entire church hierarchy: Is the coverup over or not? Law has not made a decision on whether to seek Chapter 11, and the move would require the Vatican's consent. Still the very idea reflects the moral equivocation of a church that claims it now has zero tolerance for abusive priests. What if Law inspires bishops of smaller or less well-off dioceses to follow his example? Will this be, to the Vatican, a question of moral principle that applies across the board, or will accountants drop into individual dioceses to crunch their assets and sins?

    The nation's bishops should enter this debate, for their conference has some clear thinkers. Whatever Law decides on Chapter 11, the damage is done, and it's being felt far outside Boston.

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