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News ::
Boston cardinal at bay over protection for child abusers.
13 Apr 2002
One of the Pope's most trusted allies in the college of cardinals was yesterday under effective siege in his home after the most traumatic week yet in the Catholic church's child abuse scandal.
Cardinal Bernard Law, archbishop of Boston, looks almost certain to be forced out of office after a week of revelations that have stunned the US's most loyally Catholic city.

Cardinal Law has fought off calls for his resignation over the issue once this year. But church documents revealed this week produced the smoking gun his critics were seeking: evidence that in his 18 years in the city he has presided over a systematic campaign to protect and even promote known serial abusers.

The new crisis centres on the Rev Paul Shanley, who specialised in ministering to alienated youth on Boston city streets. As a trendy, long-haired priest in the 1970s he was a local celebrity. He was also, as the church was aware, on record as a defender of "man-boy love", and had dozens of complaints registered against him. The archdiocese kept giving him new missions and references to the extent that he was able to work until last weekend as a volunteer police officer in California. He has now vanished, possibly to Thailand.

One accuser talked of "Shanley's reign of terror". Another, Arthur Austin, said: "If the Catholic church in America does not fit the description of organised crime, what does?" The Massachusetts attorney general said Cardinal Law could himself be prosecuted as an accessory.

Only years of institutional contrition and reform, however, are likely to soften the horror felt by the US's 65 million Catholics (almost 20 times the number in Ireland), the largest religious group in a religious country. Thousands of priests are now under suspicion; indeed, as many have complained, they are all suspects. It is becoming clear that generations of priests who came through the seminaries did so in an atmosphere where sexual deviance and licence were the norm. And there is no new generation: hardly anyone now wants the job.

All this is uniquely important in Irish-dominated Boston, the only big American city with a Catholic majority. When he was appointed here, the cardinal compared it to going to heaven.

For the last four days, he has neither been nor seen nor heard. And the reporters camped outside his suburban residence (a substantial pile for a single man), cannot be certain whether he is behind the azaleas considering his options or has even fled to Thailand himself.

The cardinal was always a remote figure and never revered much locally except among the Boston elite, but support for him has now collapsed. The city's papers have demanded his departure; so have several leading politicians. Even the woman who collected signatures for him to stay in February has switched sides. Already, donations to church charities have fallen dramatically, and a poll released yesterday showed that 60% of local Catholics want the cardinal to go. The church, though, is not a democracy, which some see as part of the problem.

More crucial may be whatever message he is getting from the Vatican. Cardinal Law was regarded as the most influential of the 13 American cardinals, and - despite flashes of social liberalism - he has stood unflinchingly alongside the Pope in resisting any weakening of the church's core prohibitions: contraception, abortion, women priests and priestly celibacy. It is the celibacy issue that is now most in question.

But the city's religious fervour seems undisturbed. At St Anthony's Shrine in the city centre there is still a steady stream of people - including the young - to attend the 10 daily masses, to attend confession or to pray quietly. Brother Cyril of the Franciscan Order there says that more people than ever greet him in the street, which he takes as a sign of support. "I'm disgusted with the archbishop," said one worshipper. "That does not affect how I feel about God."

Other US dioceses have moved away from the church's old priest-dominated culture, and become more reliant on local control and lay posters. But in Boston, the old Irish ways are still strong.

"They've been paranoid that someone is going to crack upon the mystical secret of priesthood," said David O'Brien, a theology professor at Holy Cross College. "The whole thing is screwed up."

The church in Boston survived one major paedophilia scandal in the early 90s. "There was a tendency to blame the press and say it was Catholic-bashing," Professor O'Brien said. "Any competent bishop would have taken the chance to clean up the act there and then."

Cardinal Law's departure seems like a necessary but insufficient starting point for reform. But the drumbeat of opposition to celibacy is becoming more insistent, and his successor will have to convey that to the next Pope before the US runs out of priests or parents willing to let their children near them.

"Celibacy is not impossible," said one senior Franciscan nun. "It has a place in many religions and it should be a choice. But it isn't easy and it requires a special relationship with the Lord to help you through.

"I think many priests take it on when they're young and zealous and don't know how difficult they are going to find it."

"Celibacy is irrelevant," insisted Brother Cyril. "The greatest number of paedophiles are married men."

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