When Pope John Paul II belatedly accepted the resignation of Bernard Cardinal Law Friday, he may have done the very thing that the Vatican was said to have most dreaded: set in motion a domino effect that will send more U.S. bishops toppling from their sees in disgrace. Law's departure from the chancery of Boston is far more important than the fate of one embattled cardinal. It is the first sign that Rome is ready to face up to the magnitude of the sexual abuse problem in the Church.

The Vatican hadn't seemed to grasp the gravity of the situation. The recent release of a memo from the pope regarding an offending priest was a huge blow to the Vatican's image. Billed as the "smoking gun" in the scandal, the pope's memo seems to show that the Vatican endorsed the policy of merely transferring offending priests to another parish or diocese. The memo authorized a transfer for a defrocked priest but added that the priest in question could remain in his original diocese, where his "condition" was known, if it would not cause scandal.

A disturbing aspect of these scandals for Catholics who, like me, believe that John Paul could be known one day as John Paul the Great is that these horrible events have unfolded in a time when a hierarchy largely of his choosing is in place. With some egregious exceptions (the disgraced Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee), today's hierarchy is not the "liberal" hierarchy composed of men appointed during previous pontificates. Law was the quintessential representative of the John Paul II hierarchy. Something obviously is quite wrong. The next pope must look carefully at how bishops are chosen. They must be men who believe that sin is more deadly than scandal. Holy men who speak the truth are preferable to bureaucrats.

Law is the first domino to fall, but there are many more who must fall if the Church is to reclaim her reputation. If the pope is the instigator of Law's departure, that signals the Church's Watergate may be coming to a head. But there is a lot that remains to be done to clean out the Augean Stable that has taken over the Church. As this is written, Catholics in my area are upset about another bishop, Bishop Paul Loverde of Arlington, Va., who isn't--at least not yet--in the national spotlight. But there is a great deal of trouble in his diocese. When the Rev. James R. Haley, a priest in Loverde's diocese, charged that several Arlington priests were wont to make use of pornographic videos and photos, guess who got in trouble with the bishop? Haley, who was placed on leave. The Arlington diocese was also slow to respond to an anguished husband whose wife ran off with a priest of the diocese who was counseling her about marital problems.

The Church has closed her eyes to the sins of priests. The attitude of the Church seems to have been that it's unfortunate when priests sin, but it would be worse if people found out. The Church's curious reliance on psychiatrists and treatment centers, not necessarily bad as far as they go, to deal with sexual abuse by priests shows a strange lack of faith in the Church's own effectiveness in understanding the darker urges of mankind.

The Church, which for 2,000 years had gotten along with all sorts of corrupt governments, hasn't deigned to follow the laws to the land in the United States, a relatively hospitable clime, and report sex offenders. The attorney general of Massachusetts claims that he has evidence of Church cover-ups of criminal behavior by priests, and new documents released by the archdiocese include more sickening revelations, including one that a priest who'd fathered two children by a woman allowed the mother to die because he wouldn't risk his reputation by calling 911 until he was safely back at his rectory. He was not defrocked.

With the resignation of Law, the Church showed that she might open her eyes and take a look at what's happening. If there is reform within, then the Church can avoid the kind of split that occurred in the sixteenth century. To do this, the Church has to recover her focus on her real mission. It is corruption (sometimes known as sin, an antediluvian term with-it Catholic prelates are loath to invoke), not scandal, that is the root of the problem in the Catholic Church.

That the Church has dealt so abysmally with sexual abuse has consequences. People call into question celibacy, the ban on the ordination of women, and other sexual dogma. The Church must right herself to be able to address these issues with confidence. It was unseemly for priests in Boston, who've taken a vow of obedience to their bishop, to call for Law's resignation (that really is something best left to the laity!), but that is what happens when corruption is rampant. If the Church doesn't allow (read: encourage) other bishops to step down, there will be more priestly disobedience and more lay isenchantment.

There already are going to be financial consequences, though I tend to regard cash flow problems as just another wholesome wake-up call for the Vatican. A friend of mine summed up reports that the Archdiocese of Boston might have to file for bankruptcy with these words: "the wages of sin." To paraphrase the motto of the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, which is "Ideas have consequences," one might say, "Sin has consequences.

" Maybe a hole in the pocketbook will force reform. That's a good thing.