With surprising speed, the child sex abuse scandal that emerged in Boston in January over a single priest's conviction for molesting a boy - and allegations he abused more than 130 others - is evolving into a crisis of governance in the Roman Catholic Church in America.
Bishops are answerable to the pope alone - not to parishioners or fellow priests. But last week a serious new question emerged: If the pope removes or allows a bishop to resign for his part in quietly shuttling abusive priests from parish to parish, will others soon be forced to follow suit?
That dilemma lay smoldering behind the scenes on Friday as Cardinal Bernard Law answered widespread calls for his resignation in a letter to fellow priests apologizing, but saying he would not resign his post.
Cardinal Law, the most senior, and until recently the most powerful prelate in the US, has been under fire since January for his oversight of former priest John Geoghan, now serving a 9- to 10-year prison term for child molestation. Law allowed him to continue ministering despite a raft of lawsuits alleging he was a child sex abuser.
Criticism of Law's credibility to lead had been intense - both inside and outside the church - but that circle of opinion widened last week when lawyers for another alleged victim released 800 pages of internal church documents apparently revealing that the archdiocese had allowed a former priest, Paul Shanley, to continue working in positions involving contact with children.
Calls for Law's resignation increased, as did speculation that he would resign.
Law's letter Friday refusing to resign was viewed by some as endorsed by the Vatican.
"I can't imagine why he would send out such a letter unless the concept of it had been reviewed with the Vatican," said former Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn, one of Law's staunchest supporters and a former US ambassador to the Vatican.
A Quinnipiac University poll last week showed 60 percent of Massachusetts Catholics thought Law should resign.
Influential Catholics also began waffling on their support for Law. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, who prior to the Shanley revelations had said Law should not resign, was noncommittal. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts earlier had said Law should remain, but changed, saying it was up to the cardinal and the pope to decide.
"I know there are people who believe my resignation is part of the solution," Law wrote in his letter on Friday. "My desire is to serve the archdiocese and the whole church with every fiber of my being. This I will continue to do as long as God gives me the opportunity."
To Anne Doyle, however, that just wasn't good enough. A mother of four who attends St. Agnes Church in Reading, Mass., she is a devout Catholic appalled by the emerging pattern of abuse that she now believes was well known by Law and other senior officials. Recently she helped organize a prayer service in support of victims of abuse.
"This is yet another slap in the face to victims and the laity," she says. "He [Law] has misread us from the very beginning. He underestimates our rage and distrust of him now. He is hurting the church he professes to love and driving people away from Catholicism."
Behind such angry reactions - and between the lines of Law's letter - is a political subtext of deep concern among the Catholic hierarchy, several observers say. In recent days, bishops nationwide reportedly encouraged Law to stay on, even if many priests and lay persons like Ms. Doyle were increasingly opposed.
Law's case - while the most prominent - is only part of broader emerging allegations of child-sex-abuse cases facing the Catholic Church. How the church hierarchy responds to Law's case is crucial to preserving its power, say observers. And while it is not known definitively whether Law consulted with the pope,what might have kept him from resigning is that his departure could lead to a series of resignations that would shift the power structure of the church in a slide away from the clergy - to the laity, several close observers say.
"The domino theory is part of the thinking in Law remaining," agrees R. Scott Appleby, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at Notre Dame University in Indiana.
"There is concern about who might fall next. I think he and other bishops said, 'Let's reform and vindicate the process and show that it's not a moral failing on the part of bishops,'" he says.