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In America, somebody has to personalize a story before it becomes alive in the culture. When it comes to the crisis of sexual abuse in the Catholic clergy, that person is Bernard Cardinal Law, the archbishop of Boston. Late last week, Law re-affirmed his decision not to resign his office but to continue "to serve this Archdiocese and the whole Church with every fiber of [his] being." In so doing, he managed not only to duck responsibility for his own actions. He also demonstrated himself not yet capable of recognizing--let alone rectifying--the deep institutional problems within the Church that created this crisis in the first place.
Certainly, no one of us would ever want to be judged by his worst moment or her worst decision. And it is beyond doubt that over the years the Catholic Church, in Boston and indeed throughout the world, has benefited enormously from this churchman's gifts. Law's work on behalf of the Church in Latin America, his pro-life initiatives, his concern for racial and ethnic justice in U.S. society, none of these should be forgotten by those who cast aspersions at him. If the only thing Law had done was champion the career of Francis Cardinal George, the Archbishop of Chicago and the most intelligent member of the U.S. hierarchy in decades, this alone would earn him high marks in my book. (A disclaimer: Anytime friends were going to Rome and wanted tickets to a Papal event, Cardinal Law's office would help me out. I have always found him a charming man personally, and he has been very good to friends of mine.)
But the question facing the Cardinal is this: Does his egregious behavior in covering up for, and reassigning, clergy who sexually abused minors rise to that level of offense for which resignation is the only recourse? To analogize from politics, Nixon's cover-up of Watergate did rise to that level, Clinton's cover-up of Monica did not. Of course, in politics, the president is ultimately accountable to the Constitution and the other branches of government. In the Church, there is no such accountability. The people of Boston have no say in the matter and the Pope is very ill.
This, to me, is the essence of what went wrong with the sexually abusive priests: There was no accountability. They felt they could act with impunity, and the bishops who shuffled them around felt they could do so with impunity. And this is what has to change now. Somehow, there must be a sense of accountability in the Church.
Cardinal Law is probably right in his suspicion that resigning tomorrow--while giving the media its pound of hierarchic flesh--might not actually improve the situation. Somebody has to actually fix what's broken with the Church, and if Law were committed to doing that, then it would make sense for him to stay. But the cardinal's statement revealed little awareness of the Church's accountability problem. On the contrary, he has claimed that this scandal came about partly because of improper bookkeeping--a statement that would have been ridiculous if it were not so offensive in a matter of such gravity. And the narcissistic concern for his own "distress" is more than a little shocking. Your Eminence, your decisions helped destroy young people's emotional lives. This really is no longer about a stain on your career; it's not about your pain. Most important, the statement said nothing about making the hierarchy accountable to those they claim to serve. Given all of that, it is indeed very difficult to imagine how Cardinal Law can be part of the solution to this crisis.
We all hope that Cardinal Law can find within himself the candor, the humility, and the courage to lead the Church out of this mess. Alas, his latest statement strikes any honest observer as less than candid, far short of contrition, and unheroic. He needs to do better, and I hope he does. Otherwise, it would be better to leave the clean up to others.