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.
Another effect of resignation is the current propensity of an activist laity to carve out power for themselves in situations where bishops have been driven from office.
For example, in response to a sex-and-finance scandal two years ago in which a bishop was forced to resign, lay members of the diocese of Santa Rosa, Calif. - about 140,000 Catholics across 42 parishes - are making an unusual, if not unprecedented bid, to remake their parishes and diocese along more democratic lines.
During the crisis, donations slowed, and some parishioners gave only to their own church by writing checks directly to pay for, say, the electric bill. But giving has slowly rebounded as diocese finances became more open - even being posted on the Internet.
Governance is changing, too. In coming weeks, the Santa Rosa diocese will convene a pastoral council involving two or three laypersons elected from each of the 42 parishes.
The result emerging is a power-sharing arrangement with clergy and the new bishop in which laity will have their say over the church's direction. "The Catholic Church is centuries behind - it has really not caught up to the democratic spirit of this country or what's happening in some other churches," says Antoinette Kuhry, a parishioner at St. Leo the Great Catholic Church in Boyes Hot Springs, Calif., part of the Santa Rosa diocese. "We're electing two representatives to this council, [who] we hope will have great input into what happens in the diocese."