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Rebels Within the Church Challenge the Hierarchy

By Laurie Goodstein

Last April, when the nation's Roman Catholic cardinals traveled to Rome and brought home a statement from Pope John Paul II condemning the sexual abuse of minors by priests, some church leaders expected that his words would calm the growing anger among the church's laypeople. Last June in Dallas, where American bishops passed a manifesto committing themselves to remove any priest who had ever sexually abused a minor, church officials again expressed optimism that their efforts would restore faith and quell the restiveness among the laity.

Now that the scandal has resulted in the downfall of the nation's senior prelate, Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, the bishops recognize that the crisis may only grow as laypeople and priests, lawyers and judges, see the power they can have.

Prosecutors and grand juries are investigating priests and dioceses from Los Angeles to Long Island. Victims are stepping forward, demanding face-to-face meetings with their bishops and filing lawsuits asking for millions of dollars in damages. Priests tell their bishops they feel betrayed and demoralized.

And laypeople across the theological spectrum are openly challenging the hierarchy, saying that Cardinal Law is only one of several bishops who have protected sexually abusive priests and deserve to be toppled.

"I don't think it ameliorates them at all," said Paul F. Lakeland, a professor of religious studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut, said of the laity. "It will embolden them, and I think that's one of the reasons the Vatican has taken so long to do this. It surely has to be aware of the potential consequences. They set a precedent here, and some people will read this as, if you make enough noise about someone against whom there are legitimate charges, eventually he will go."

Bishops have resigned before in disgrace, after being exposed as philanderers, pedophiles or thieves.

Bishops have been unseated for heresy, after openly repudiating church doctrine on such things as papal infallibility or birth control. But church experts say they cannot recall another instance in which a bishop resigned after a virtual revolt from his parishioners and his priests.

At the cathedral in Boston last Sunday, the number of protesters outside rivaled those attending Mass. Priests, who are normally loath to publicly rebuke their bishops, had become defiant. Fifty-eight priests in the Boston archdiocese, some known as Cardinal Law's loyalists, signed a letter asking him to step down.

In the end, said Prof. Alberto Monticone, a Vatican historian associated with La Sapienza, the state university of Rome, Vatican officials recognized that keeping Cardinal Law in Boston was a greater liability than losing him.

"The church is looking over its interests: the people of the United States, the people of the church, but also the image of the church," Professor Monticone said. "The risk would have been not to have done anything. Certainly it's a wound this is a relevant person but it's a necessary wound."

For months, the Vatican resisted calls from laypeople in Boston and elsewhere for Cardinal Law's resignation.

"They don't take action just because people get upset and angry," said the Rev. Robert J. Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils. "In the Catholic community, the people do not choose their own bishops. So I'm sure that the question of Cardinal Law's resignation has been weighed, and weighed very carefully by the Holy Father."

Church experts said that some in the Vatican feared a domino effect: that Cardinal Law's resignation would prompt the downfall of other bishops who had served as his deputies in Boston, and whose names were also on those documents transferring or forgiving abusive priests.

Five other bishops, former associates of Cardinal Law who once worked in Boston and were eventually promoted to their own dioceses on his recommendation, have now been subpoenaed to testify by a grand jury in Massachusetts. The five are Bishops Thomas V. Daily of Brooklyn; William F. Murphy of Rockville Centre, which covers Long Island; Alfred C. Hughes of New Orleans; Robert J. Banks of Green Bay, Wis.; and John B. McCormack of Manchester, N.H.

"I think we're seeing just the beginning of serious interest by the government in criminal investigations," said Seth T. Taube, a lawyer with the firm McCarter and English in Newark who has defended the church in abuse claims.

Grand juries are investigating the church in at least nine states, Arizona, California, Maryland, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and South Carolina, as well as Massachusetts.

Lawyers in California are preparing hundreds of civil suits to file against the church beginning Jan. 1, when a new state law goes into effect that drops the statute of limitations that had prevented accusers in sexual abuse cases from suing the church.

"We're seeing more suits from longer periods ago than we have ever seen before," said Mr. Taube. "We're going to get to the day when decisions are going to have to be made about whether the church's resources should go to paying victims or ministering to the needy."

Said one church official who did not want to be identified, "You've got the whole California matter coming up now, so it's just hard to expect that it's going to quiet down."

Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark said, "We realize that this did not develop overnight, so I don't think it will be healed overnight, especially in places where the confusion and the problems have been greater."

Archbishop Myers, who faces questions about his own handling of sexual abuse cases in his previous diocese, Peoria, Ill, added: "There will be a certain release of tension and stress because of this decision which the Holy Father and Cardinal Law made, at least for a while. But people need to be healed, and relationships need to be healed."

But the main reason the crisis is not over is that victims of abusive priests, who once masked their identity in television interviews, have just begun to have the confidence to step into the spotlight and demand change.

David Cerulli, a spokesman in New York for the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said his group's focus would now shift to bringing pressure on two of Cardinal Law's deputies, Bishops Daily and Murphy.

"Victims must continue to find the courage to come forward," Mr. Cerulli said. "This is what created the justified outrage of the public and prosecutors which ultimately led to the resignation of Cardinal Law. One important point to remember, however, is that Cardinal Law is only one part of a much deeper problem: a secretive and insensitive hierarchy. His removal does nothing to fundamentally change how bishops treat victims."

Victims' advocates maintain that church documents in other dioceses, if unsealed by a court order, would show the same pattern of concealment as in Boston.

"This is not over this is a beginning," said A. W. Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine monk and the author of several books on priests and sexuality, who has been an expert witness in church abuse cases. "Law officers and D.A.'s around the country all say the same thing, that the church is fighting the examination of documents tooth and nail. You can change the players, but the system is the same. It's just too big for one, or even a dozen resignations to change."