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Mary McGrory

The Cardinal in Court

By Mary McGrory
Sunday, May 12, 2002; Page B07

Massachusetts Judge Constance Sweeney appears to be the kind of woman who was brought up to genuflect to a cardinal and kiss his ring. Her Honor attended Catholic schools; in the good old days a call from a monsignor suavely explaining His Eminence's dismay and his hopes for consideration from an estimable daughter of the church would have done the trick. But Judge Sweeney ordered Cardinal Bernard Law into the dock -- where Boston thinks he should have been since the Boston Globe broke the sickening saga of Law's pampering of the pedophiles slithering through his diocese.

Sweeney had disappointed Law before. She ordered the release of the thousands of documents that he had been sitting on for years, documents that detail the shuffling around of "notorious and serial" offenders, which even the Roman curia condemns. Unluckily for Law, Her Honor turned out to be another of the Irish Catholics in Massachusetts who are putting piety aside in favor of seeking justice for the boys whose lives were warped by predators in Roman collars.

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Judge Sweeney expedited the cardinal's deposition after Law committed his latest outrage: the cancellation of an estimated $15 million to $30 million settlement between the church and 86 of the victims of John Geoghan, the defrocked priest and recently convicted child molester. Judge Sweeney, who had approved the settlement, expressed her suspicion in a forthright manner that would have been unthinkable in her mother's time. She said she was afraid that Law might at any moment skip off to Rome, home of his patron, the pope.

Law wore a large silver cross around his neck for his appearance at the courthouse. It was obviously meant to identify him as a man of God. His testimony did not. The doctrine to which he exhibited the greatest devotion was "deniability," a favorite tenet of John Mitchell, Richard Nixon's attorney general during Watergate.

His careful, sometimes contradictory answers only reinforced the impression that this prince of the church was an enabler of perverts. To him, that is less scandalous than having the faithful know that priests were preying on their sons with impunity. But that wasn't Law's fault, he seemed to be saying. Yes, he was aware that child abuse is a grave sin -- although his chosen phrase is "illness with a moral component."

Besides, he palmed off the problem on his subordinates -- and just assumed they were doing "whatever was appropriate." He didn't inquire. He made pretty sure that the doctors he brought in were not expert psychiatrists who might give him the bad news that pedophiles cannot be cured. He forgot, he said on the stand, a letter from an aunt named Marge Gallant, who reported to him that seven boys in her family had allegedly been molested by John Geoghan. Law was too busy writing nice notes to Geoghan to read all his mail. All the tenderness of this cold-hearted cardinal was directed at the perpetrators. The prelate always trumped the pastor.

The subordinates who assisted Law in their unholy chores prospered, and from various episcopal mansions are issuing alibis comparable to Law's. One has bewailed poor record-keeping, an attitude difficult to sustain in view of the flood of documents. Another has questioned the veracity of complaining parents. When Law went to court, he carried a claim that is standard in these cases, that it was the fault of negligent parents or the children themselves. The father of a boy who was 6 at the time that another Law protege, Father Paul Shanley, was dragging him into confessionals for sex games, cried out in rage. It was understandable: A 6-year-old who goes to kindergarten and has to ride in a car seat is hardly able to fight off an enormous adult whom his parents have taught him to respect.

For his latest crisis, the one that precipitated his rendezvous with Judge Sweeney, His Eminence chose a new scapegoat -- the archdiocese's Finance Council made him do it. This was received with much skepticism by Catholics familiar with Law's autocratic style. Says Mary Jo Bane, of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, "He was overruled by laymen? Give me a break." Laymen were the least of his concerns. In the recent convocation of cardinals in Rome, Washington's Theodore McCarrick made a valiant effort to include the laity in a solution for the scandal. It was mysteriously deleted from the final communique. Pope John XXIII called the laity "the people of God," but the present Vicar of Christ sees doctrinal strictness and conformity as the answer. Law fervently agrees with him.

Boston and Rome are at an impasse. A papal interdict would not make Boston genuflect this time. Boston thinks Law should have worn sackcloth and ashes to court and carried a sign like the one on President Harry Truman's desk: "The buck stops here."

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