Cardinal's dilemma has echoes in Boston scandal

Sat, May 5, 2012, 01:00

ANALYSIS:AS HE sits in Ara Coeli in Armagh, Cardinal Seán Brady has begun to resemble someone who was under siege in a similarly fine house a decade ago: Cardinal Bernard Law, the archbishop of Boston who became the first American bishop to resign over a sex abuse scandal involving priests under his supervision.

The drumbeat for Cardinal Brady’s resignation, growing louder each day, is reminiscent of the one that eventually hounded Cardinal Law out of Boston 10 years ago.

There are key differences in their cases: Cardinal Law was under fire for direct actions he took as a bishop, while Cardinal Brady is being pressured for his inaction as a priest some 35 years ago. But the arc of the criticism is remarkably similar.

Like Cardinal Brady, Cardinal Law was initially firmly resolute in his refusal to step down, saying his resignation would solve nothing. But the drumbeat got louder and more persistent.

What was seen in Rome as steadfast courage was seen in most of Boston as tone-deaf arrogance.

While the Catholic Church in Ireland has denied that the pope rejected an offer by Cardinal Brady to step down, that is what happened in Boston in 2002: Pope John Paul II turned down Cardinal Law’s offers to resign.

Cardinal Law saw in Boston what was not so obvious in the quiet offices of the Vatican. His credibility was shot. Even some of the most devout Catholics who admired his early civil rights work, and his ecumenical work with Jews, were infuriated and ashamed by his documented efforts to protect predatory priests and move them from parish to parish, where they could abuse young people again.

If pope John Paul II and his mandarins thought they could ride out the storm in Boston, Cardinal Law knew better. He may have been, as the evidence showed, deaf to the pleas of victims all those years, but he wasn’t blind. Donations in the archdiocese plummeted. The church in Boston is, next to the state, the biggest social service provider in the region, and its mission was severely undermined.

Some of Cardinal Law’s closest friends, not just clerics but business titans, told him he had to go. There is an echo in the calls by Irish political leaders for Cardinal Brady to consider his position. The Tánaiste was not as subtle. Neither was Marian Walsh, the Massachusetts state senator who was Cardinal Law’s closest ally.

The difference may be that while Eamon Gilmore’s call for Cardinal Brady to resign surprised no one, Marian Walsh’s call for Cardinal Law to resign was shocking.

She was the legislator most closely aligned with what Cardinal Law advocated. She embraced not only the church’s conservative orthodoxy, but its liberal view on social justice.

When, in April 2002, Walsh became the first elected official to call for Cardinal Law to resign, it resonated so widely because so many believed she would have been the last.

Walsh’s call had a snowball effect, emboldening other politicians to follow suit.

That seems to be happening across Ireland now.

Cardinal Law’s replacement, Cardinal Seán O’Malley, was dispatched to Dublin to help Archbishop Diarmuid Martin steer his way through the morass of clerical abuse. Cardinal Brady could do worse than ringing up Cardinal Law for some advice.

And by just placing that call, Cardinal Brady might find solace. For all the ignominy he left behind in Boston, Cardinal Law was warmly received and richly rewarded in the Vatican.

He was made archpriest of one of Rome’s great churches, St Mary Major basilica, and served on many Vatican committees, including the one that selects bishops.

He was an honoured guest at diplomatic functions at the Holy See.

When he retired last year, Cardinal Law was still a prince of the church, something that infuriates the victims of clerical sexual abuse to this day.

As Cardinal Law’s experience shows, leaving somewhere in disgrace doesn’t mean it follows you all the way to Rome.