by Phil Lawler
special to

Dec. 13, 2007 ( – Five years ago today, CWN broke the story that Cardinal Bernard Law had resigned as Archbishop of Boston.

At the time, the resignation brought sighs of relief to everyone concerned—including, I am sure, Cardinal Law himself. It seemed unavoidable: the product of forces that had been building for months, even years.

But as we look back upon it now, with the benefit of hindsight, the ouster of Boston’s archbishop leaves one very important question unanswered. If Cardinal Law had to go—and make no mistake, he did—why have no other American bishops followed him out the door?

Back on December 13, 2002, the news of Cardinal Law’s resignation came as no great surprise. Cardinal Law had suddenly vanished from Boston earlier in the week. Then he was sighted in Rome, and when Vatican officials confirmed that he would meet privately with Pope John Paul II (bio – news). What other reason could the cardinal have had for this unannounced trip, if not to tender his resignation?

For months Cardinal Law had been absorbing savage public criticism, amply justified by his grotesque mishandling of the sex-abuse crisis. When he had offered his resignation in April, the Vatican had encouraged him to ride out the storm. But by December 2002 his situation was untenable.

In the final days before the cardinal’s departure, 58 priests of the Boston archdiocese had joined in a public call for his resignation; the state’s top prosecutor had complained that the cardinal was using “every tool and maneuver” to obstruct a criminal investigation; a grand jury was awaiting testimony from the cardinal and his auxiliary bishops; and the archdiocesan finance committee had begun to weigh the possibility of a bankruptcy filing—a step that had been considered unthinkable for a Catholic diocese.

Taken together, those factors clearly indicated that Cardinal Law could no longer function as the leader of the Boston archdiocese. The Church was in an uproar; his credibility as a spiritual leader was in tatters. Resignation was the only option.

In December 2002, Bernard Law was the poster-boy for the mishandling of the sex-abuse scandal. But now, five years and several thousand news stories later, we know that his malfeasance was not unique. Scores of other bishops covered up the evidence of sexual abuse by their clergy. Dozens of bishops have now run the gauntlet of media probes, victims’ lawsuits, and grand-jury investigations. Several bishops have signed plea-bargaining agreements, essentially admitting to criminal misconduct. Five American dioceses have been plunged into bankruptcy.

Were Massachusetts prosecutors frustrated by Cardinal Law’s failure to cooperate? Certainly. But this year prosecutors in Los Angeles expressed the same level of frustration with Cardinal Roger Mahony. And nearly at the same time, in the same state of California, one judge scolded Bishop Brom of San Diego for inaccurate statements in a bankruptcy filing, while another judge scheduled hearings on contempt-of-court charges against the Bishop Brown of Orange.

Cardinal Law was not alone. He abused the trust of the faithful, he thwarted legitimate investigations, he defended the indefensible. But so did many—most!—of his colleagues in the American hierarchy.

Since 2002 several American bishops have been forced to resign. But in each of these cases, the prelate stepped down after public revelations of his own personal misconduct. To this day, Cardinal Law is the only American bishop who has been forced to resign because of his failure to curb the misconduct of others.

Thanks to an implacable judge who opened the archdiocesan files to public scrutiny, Boston was the first place where the sex-abuse scandal within the Catholic Church was fully exposed. So it makes sense that Cardinal Law was the first bishop to be forced out of office in disgrace. What’s surprising is that, five years later, he’s also the last.