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Sex-abuse victims group protests Law's role

April 12, 2005

ROME — Cardinal Bernard Law may have been run out of Boston in December 2002 for protecting predator priests, but he was back in this city's most prestigious spotlight last night.

The disgraced former archbishop of Boston — his formal title is archbishop emeritus — celebrated the fourth of nine daily Masses that are the centerpiece of the official mourning period for Pope John Paul II.

Law, wearing long red vestments, walked slowly at the end of a long procession through St. Peter's Basilica as two advocates for victims of sexual abuse protested his role outside in St. Peter's Square.

"We do not think this is the appropriate time to try to rehabilitate the image of Cardinal Law," said Barbara Blaine, founder of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, the largest group in the U.S. that represents victims of abuse.

When Blaine and Barbara Dorris, outreach director for SNAP, arrived at the edge of the square, they instantly were circled by a scrum of more than 100 reporters and cameramen. Police, clearly distressed by the commotion, forced Blaine across a street and behind barricades. Neither police nor tourists seemed to have any idea who Blaine was or why the media were so interested in reaching her.

Blaine and Dorris said they came to Rome to express the outrage they have heard from victims of sexual abuse by priests about Law's high-profile role during the mourning period.

"He never took responsibility for what he did," said Dorris, who appeared upset by the police attention. "He knowingly moved and protected child abusers. If you did that, you would be in jail."

Revelations in early 2002, mostly from court documents, showed that Law protected and transferred priests he knew had sexually molested minors. The revelations led to the greatest moral and financial crisis in the history of the Catholic Church in America. Dioceses have paid at least $840 million to victims through settlements since 1950, according to the church.

The Vatican is not giving an official reason that Law was chosen for this role, but it has been assumed here that his selection had more to do with the important Roman church he leads than with restoring Law's name. Since resigning as archbishop of Boston and relocating to the Vatican, Law has been serving as archpriest of the Patriarchal Basilica of St. Mary Major, one of only four basilicas in Rome that are run directly by the Vatican.

Yesterday, though, he celebrated Mass in the largest church in the world, beneath a towering golden canopy that reaches up to St. Peter's famous dome, which can be seen for miles around. He spent much of the Mass sitting alone in a gold chair in front of the altar.

In his homily, Law said in Italian that he was inspired by the tribute of 3 million pilgrims to John Paul last week.

"In these incredible days, the pope continues to teach us what it means ... to be a follower of Christ," Law said. "Our faith has been reinforced."

After a week during which Catholics mourned as one for John Paul, and no attention was paid to issues of concern to a single nation, Law's Mass brought the sex-abuse scandal in America to center stage.

Last week, leaders of SNAP wrote a letter to Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, asking him to oppose Law's attempt to repair his image.

"The code of silence with which church officials shelter even the most egregious among themselves must be broken," the letter said.

Joe Maher, the founder of Opus Bono Sacerdotii, a lay group that defends the rights of priests accused of sexual misconduct, said in a statement from Detroit that John Paul believed Law was sincere in his remorse.

"Cardinal Law, the repented sinner who has amended his life and has been forgiven, like Christ's Prodigal Son, has every right to the same human dignity and freedoms of all," Maher said.

Before his downfall, Law was considered the most influential U.S. cardinal in Rome. He gave the homily at Cardinal John O'Connor's funeral Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in 2000 and received a long, standing ovation for trumpeting the New York archbishop's opposition to abortion, one of many highlights in what then was a distinguished pastoral career.

When several cases of sex abuse in Boston were revealed during the early 1990s, a warning of what was to come, Law was strident and defensive, even calling for God to strike out at the media.

The basilica that Law now leads was built by Pope Sixtus III during the fifth century. It contains numerous mosaics and the tombs of several popes, including St. Pius V and Sixtus V. Beneath a high altar are said to be fragments of the crib of Christ. The bell tower outside, built in 1377, is the highest in Rome.

The basilica, according to legend, was built on a spot where the Madonna appeared in 352 and produced a summer snow. Every Aug. 5, rose pedals are dropped on the congregation as a reminder of that snow.

A pamphlet written by Law and available inside the basilica explains the significance of the church's Year of the Eucharist and invites visitors to ponder the mystery of Christ's sacrifice and the timeless meaning of the Eucharist. Law also advises tourists to consider visiting the confessional.

"The Eucharist creates communion, but it cannot be the starting point for communion," Law writes. "Catholics should approach the Eucharist in a state of grace. When they are conscious of having committed grace sins, they must first seek the forgiveness of their sins in the confessional."


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