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    A Times Editorial

    Challenge for the church

    Cardinal Bernard Law's resignation opens the way for the Catholic Church to more fully address its sexual abuse problems. However, it's still not clear the Vatican is ready to do so.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published December 15, 2002

    Friday's resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston was an appropriate first step for the Roman Catholic Church. Law's protection of sexually abusive priests rendered him unfit to lead with any moral or political authority. He was a symbol, even before his own parish priests disowned him, of a church indifferent to the abuse it tolerated and the untold pain its lies still cause.

    But Law's departure, outside the insular world of the church hierarchy, amounts to nothing more than damage control unless the Vatican makes a bold move to confront the serial sex abuse in the ordained ministry. This is not, as church leaders managed to frame it only months ago, a child-abuse case. Nor were sexual assaults limited to a small pool of priests or a problem diocese. Men, women, boys, girls, student-nuns and priests -- all have complained, in graphic detail, of being abused, and Law's ouster should open the door to a broad review of similar complicity by other active bishops.

    This is a high expectation of the Vatican. It needs to be remembered that Law remained on the job not because he begged or clung to power but because Pope John Paul II insisted he stay there. Even before new revelations further rocked his archdiocese last week, Law's credibility was so destroyed he hardly could face Catholic followers in public.

    It wasn't until dozens of Boston-area priests called for Law to step down that the Vatican recognized the dimension of the crisis, at least in Boston and in practical terms. With church attendance and donations down, the Vatican saw a fiduciary if not moral responsibility to usher in new leadership.

    Moving Law aside may help the Boston archdiocese and parishioners come to terms, but it strips the Vatican of a fall guy who took the arrows for the institutional misdeeds of the entire church. This is one reason Rome took so long to confront the conflagration in Boston, one reason the Curia forced American bishops to water down their policy on abuse and one reason many bishops themselves have not gotten with the reform program.

    Law's mismanagement of the worst abuse cases known to date took attention away from other problem dioceses, and his ouster now raises the stakes on how far Rome will go against abusive priests and their enabler bishops. Rather than begin a healing process, Law's removal could sweep away a fire wall that's kept larger demands in check.

    The coming months will paint a definitive picture. John Paul must appoint a new archbishop, Boston must figure out how to settle more than 400 cases of abuse and the nation's bishops must begin to institute new policies to report and discipline priests. There still aren't clear signs the church hierarchy is genuinely behind this. Even Friday, Law's resignation came with calls by the church for a newfound spirit of unity.

    But the problem isn't lack of unity; the problem is that priests raped, the church hushed it up and now the bishops and the Curia in Rome tell us justice is found in the power of prayer. Having a cardinal hounded from office, in a city where he was popular and did so much good, should be a wake-up call that personalities are unimportant. What Catholics want is trust in their priests and the people who call themselves leaders.

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