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Mary McGrory

Boston's Rebel Priests

By Mary McGrory
Thursday, December 19, 2002; Page A41

Heaven knows there were many reasons for the Vatican to let Cardinal Bernard F. Law go, finally. Some were old: empty pews and collection baskets, a threat of bankruptcy to the archdiocese and criminal prosecution for His Eminence. One was new: a letter signed by 58 lowly parish priests who urged their superior to resign. It was an unprecedented challenge -- and once unthinkable in a city where the church has had dominion since the first Irish immigrant stepped off the boat.

The rising of the priests, their readiness to take on the cardinal they had "promised" to obey, was an act of insubordination that would have occasioned a sanction as grave as excommunication. But the rebels expect no sanctions, as they are enfolded in the praise and thanks of their parishioners.

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The Curia, famed for its obduracy, gave way in the face of this amazing assault from within, from the infantry of the church. Such effrontery might be contagious; if so, it could change the face of the church.

It finally penetrated the thick carapace of the Curia that the ailing pope was being hurt by the cardinal's persistence in office while Boston blazed with rage. What was to like about the way Law handled the crisis from the day the Boston Globe broke the story of the scandal last Jan. 6? What was to like about the cardinal's conduct? The Vatican's haughty dismissal of the agony of the victims and their parents enraged the faithful, who were being asked to be more concerned about Holy Mother Church than about their abused boys.

Boston didn't buy the Vatican spin. The city's wrath was stoked by horrific detail in thousands of documents the cardinal tried to withhold from civil authorities. Boston demonstrated, shouted at the cardinal outside the cathedral and joined a lay organization called Voices of the Faithful, which the cardinal tried to suppress.

The frustrated faithful had friends in low places, namely their parish priests. If you talk to any of them, as I did, you will find that they do not sound like firebrands, troublemakers, heretics or even young Turks. Take for instance, the Rev. Robert Bullock, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Sharon, Mass., an outlying town. Father Bullock had a traditional background, Jesuit prep school, Boston College High School, followed by Boston College and priestly training at St. John's Seminary. He joined the Priests' Forum, an organization formed before the scandal broke -- canon law sanctions such organizations. The forum was concerned about the 15 percent to 40 percent decline in church attendance. He was a member of a forum committee that drafted the letter that told Law it was time to go.

Father Bullock admired Law for his civil rights record, his kindness to immigrants, his concern for sick priests and those with a death in the family. His shortcomings? Bullock cites an absence of self-doubt, second thoughts and the ability to listen. The Sunday that word of Law's resignation began to circulate, and people who had stopped coming to church in January showed up again for the first time, Bullock told his congregation that it was not a time of victory or triumph. For some of the priests, signing the letter had been a matter of "great pain and reluctance."

It was not for the Rev. Ron Coyne of St. Albert the Great in Weymouth, another outlying town. The scandal had paralyzed his parish. He knew from meetings with the seething parish council that "people were not going to put up with being stifled any longer.'' He does not have e-mail -- he dislikes computers -- so he was out of the loop during the most frantic exchanges among the priests who were circulating the letter. A friend called him up, and Coyne immediately said he would sign.

He was brought up in the old pre-Vatican Council days in a lower-middle-class suburb of Boston. "I went to confession every Saturday, because I thought I would burn in hell if I didn't.'' Coyne didn't feel defiant or disloyal when he joined the small revolution.

He thinks Law's problem is that at some point he became an institution instead of a pastor, and that he kept humanity out of the pedophile problem. Coyne didn't have any hesitation or regret. "I don't think the promise of obedience means blind obedience or compromise with conscience."

The priests' letter was hand-delivered to Law as he prepared for his fateful trip to Rome. The letter and the capitulation of the Vatican cardinals has made history. It is why in a week of unlamented departures -- Henry Kissinger's from the 9/11 commission, Al Gore's from the presidential race and Trent Lott's teetering on the brink -- Law's exit may be the most significant of all. It was a step closer to Pope John XXIII's vision of the church as ''the people of God."


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