On a Mission to Restore Credibility
April 21, 2002
By LAURIE GOODSTEIN
New York Times
The American Roman Catholic cardinals who have been
summoned to the Vatican this week for an extraordinary
closed-door meeting on the sexual abuse crisis are men who
have risen to the top not as innovators or entrepreneurs,
but as loyalists, steadfast in devotion to their church and
their pope, John Paul II.
All were appointed cardinals by him, and most are in their
70's or 80's. Like the pope, they were trained in an era
when priests' sexual misbehavior with minors was settled in
the secrecy of the confessional, not the glare of the
Now they are traveling to Rome to repair the damage that
critics say resulted when they and other bishops went too
far in protecting the church's clerics and financial assets
from the former altar boys and girls, parochial school
students, seminarians and others who say they were sexually
abused by priests.
The cardinals have made it clear they are on a mission to
restore their credibility, signaling in interviews in
recent days that their Vatican meetings are likely to
produce not just compassionate words for the victims of
priests, but concrete steps to help renew confidence in the
moral authority of the church.
But little in their careers has prepared these leaders to
handle the upheaval that has engulfed the church. Four are
canon lawyers, schooled in seeing justice through the lens
of the church's internal legal code. Another, Cardinal
Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, is a diplomat, trusted
with representing the church in sensitive missions to
places like the Middle East and Vietnam. Cardinal Adam
Maida of Detroit raised $60 million to build the Pope John
Paul II Cultural Center in Washington to promote the
These are the leaders who have been asked to put out a
blaze that started in the chancery offices of their most
eminent member, Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, and has
since spread to singe them all. The eight American
cardinals who lead archdioceses are now all under scrutiny
for mishandling sexual abuse accusations against priests.
Two of them, Cardinals Edward M. Egan of New York and Roger
M. Mahony of Los Angeles, have come under harsher scrutiny
The only American cardinal traveling to the meeting at the
Vatican who has not been directly touched by the scandal is
Cardinal Avery Dulles, a theologian at Fordham University,
who does not control an archdiocese. The other cardinal
archbishops attending are Anthony J. Bevilacqua of
Philadelphia and Francis E. George of Chicago.
Cardinal Dulles and Cardinal William H. Keeler of
Baltimore, who is best known for the delicate work of
building bridges between Jews and Catholics, suggested in
interviews last week that the sexual abuse scandal was a
creation of a news media feeding frenzy. They are not alone
in that view. In between expressions of contrition, church
officials mentioned in interviews that they feel they are
being unfairly criticized for cases that go back 20 years
Nevertheless, the cardinals acknowledged last week that
they now bear the burden of proving they understand the
depth of anger and betrayal expressed by many Catholics.
As if in an orchestrated media campaign, five of the eight
cardinal archbishops gave interviews last week saying that
they now favored adopting a national policy that would
require American bishops to notify civil authorities of all
credible allegations of abuse.
Several cardinals added that they might ask the Vatican to
make it easier for them to laicize, or defrock, a priest -
a disciplinary step that is now rarely used because it can
involve a lengthy appeals process in ecclesiastical courts.
Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton, auxiliary bishop of Detroit,
said, "If we had started with national procedures from the
beginning, that every diocese was committed to and adhering
to, we might have escaped what we are facing now."
Even a few fellow bishops, who refused to be quoted, said
in interviews that they had been stunned by the revelations
that Cardinal Law protected and reassigned two particularly
unrepentant priests that he was told were serial child
abusers, John Geoghan and the Rev. Paul Shanley. After
proclaiming that there were no more accused priests in his
archdiocese, Cardinal Law combed his personnel files and
provided the authorities with 80 more names.
To grasp the Shakespearean dimensions of his disgrace, it
is necessary to know that Cardinal Law was a favored papal
adviser who donned the red cardinal's hat in 1985 and is
therefore the most senior prelate in the American church.
"The buzz around him whenever he traveled in ecclesiastical
circles was, this is the most powerful man in the
wealthiest and most powerful branch of the church in the
world," said John L. Allen Jr., the Vatican correspondent
for The National Catholic Reporter, an independent weekly,
who recalled being in a cathedral in Rome last fall when
Cardinal Law arrived to deliver a speech.
"Law was celebrated that evening as one of the titans of
this Catholic generation," Mr. Allen said. "I was sitting
with the Italian press and clergy when Law came in, and it
was as if the Beatles had walked in the room - everyone was
craning to see him, to stand next to him and have their
Cardinal Law now heads to Rome stooped in stature,
resisting widespread calls for his resignation. But it is a
sign of his close identification with this papacy that he
did not resign, said Mary Ann Glendon, a law professor at
Harvard University who is a member of the Pontifical
Commission on the Social Sciences and a friend of the
"Cardinal Law was and is the American cardinal who has been
the most articulate exponent of the philosophy of John Paul
II," Professor Glendon said. '`There is no way that a
resignation by Cardinal Law could be interpreted except as
giving great aid and encouragement to persons who would
really like to turn the American church, or at least the
church in Boston, into a kind of reform Catholicism, or a
Catholic Unitarian Universalism."
Church experts say it is probable that Cardinal Law has now
been largely discredited among his fellow cardinals and in
the Vatican. Vatican officials have been reading the news
reports, forwarded to them by the pope's representative in
Washington, the papal nuncio, and are aware of his
"They've read it, all of it," said the Rev. James A.
Coriden, a professor of church law at Washington
Theological Union. "It says in canon law that it's a major
part of the papal nuncio's job to keep Rome informed of
what is going on here. The job, one former nuncio once
said, is the kidney of the mystical body of Christ - you
filter what goes through."
Vatican officials are also aware, then, that Cardinal Egan,
who won favor with the pope for helping rewrite the code of
canon law, has been portrayed in the New York press as an
He has been criticized, in his former role as bishop of
Bridgeport, Conn., for taking an aggressively legalistic
stance toward victims of abuse. Documents show that he
repeatedly doubted the veracity of victims, and authorized
his lawyers to fight them with the novel legal strategy
that the church bore no responsibility because priests are
In New York, under pressure from prosecutors, Cardinal Egan
forwarded a list of accused priests in the archdiocese to
the authorities. He has not given any interviews since the
scandal broke, but he issued a letter to be read in
parishes this weekend in which he acknowledges for the
first time that mistakes may have been made in the handling
of sexual abuse cases.
In contrast, Cardinal Mahony, known as a maverick who often
courts media attention, spent a day giving television
interviews last week in which he promoted several
initiatives his archdiocese would implement to prevent the
sexual abuse of children.
He proposed expanding a panel that handles allegations of
sexual abuse to include more laypeople and an abuse victim,
creating spiritual programs for victims, and teaching
children in churches how to recognize and report sexual
"Cardinal Mahony is a man that gets things done," said
retired Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco. "That's his
way. He sails right into a problem and tries to take hold
of it, so it doesn't surprise me he is doing this."
Cardinal Mahony, who leads the nation's largest and most
ethnically diverse archdiocese, also called for the Vatican
to re-examine allowing priests to marry. In a class of
cardinals known for theological conservatism, Cardinal
Mahony is one of only two Americans sometimes classified as
a moderate. The other is Cardinal McCarrick of Washington.
But some church observers said Cardinal Mahony might be
trying to deflect the bad publicity that resulted from
private e-mail messages that became public, indicating that
his lawyer was withholding from prosecutors the names of
three of eight accused priests.
He had already come under criticism for his role as a
bishop in Stockton, Calif. In a court trial there in 1998,
a psychiatrist testified that he told Cardinal Mahony that
a pedophile priest was a risk around children, but that the
bishop assigned the priest to parish work anyway.
The sexual abuse scandal has had the surprising effect of
uniting the church's left and right in contempt for the
"I have refused to name names, but I am very angry,
dismayed and hurt by the way this whole episode has been
handled by so many people in senior positions of the
hierarchy," said William A. Donohue, president of the
Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, a
conservative antidefamation group. "I don't know if they
can set it straight. It has to do with what has been
lacking in these men all along - common sense and courage.
There's an impatience now. American Catholics are not going
to wait ad infinitum for this church to change."