Cardinal Law gives relief, sad feelings by leaving

Saturday, December 14, 2002

The resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law brought relief, prayers and some sadness from Roman Catholics who watched the priest sex abuse scandal mushroom over the past year.

Area Catholics watched with interest as the stories of abuse unfolded, particularly since their former bishop was a central figure. Law served as bishop of the Springfield-Cape Girardeau Roman Catholic Diocese from 1973 to 1984 before being assigned to Boston.

Many in southern Missouri will remember Law in prayer this holiday season, said Monsignor Richard Rolwing, pastor of St. Mary's Cathedral in Cape Girardeau.

"It's a sad moment for all in Missouri who knew him as a kind and compassionate man," Rolwing said.

Law's resignation was accepted by Pope John Paul II on Friday after nearly a year of almost daily revelations about priests accused of sexually abusing children over decades and church officials who covered incidents up. While he will no longer serve as Boston archbishop, Law remains a cardinal, which means he could move into another church post.

Boston beginning

The sex abuse crisis erupted in Boston in January as church documents became public during the trial of defrocked priest John Geoghan, and it quickly spread across the country, with thousands of allegations of abuse by clergy surfacing and hundreds of lawsuits filed.

Rolwing said it was likely Law's compassion that brought him into the fray in the first place.

"It could be his compassion that got him into this difficulty. He was trying to reach out to the priests and forgot about the victims."

In the Springfield-Cape Girardeau Diocese, three priests were removed from their offices in March after revelations that they had been accused in the past of sexual abuse of children.

Those priests were all retired at the time, but the March actions meant they weren't allowed to celebrate Mass or serve as pastors though they retained their titles as priests and remained ordained.

All three men had served as priests under Law, who knew of the allegations and reassigned the men to other parishes in southern Missouri. When the Rev. John J. Leibrecht became bishop for the southern Missouri diocese, he was made aware of the situations. In one case, he imposed restrictions on the priest that were later violated.

While many abuse victims had been strident in their criticism of Law and had called for his resignation months ago, some were more subdued when the moment came Friday.

"I don't want to say I'm happy because I'm not," said Anthony Muzzi Jr., who says he was molested by the Rev. Geoghan for several years in the 1960s, starting from the time he was 11 years old.

"I truly believe in my heart that Law was not the only person who knew all the bad things that were going on," said Muzzi, who was among 86 alleged Geoghan victims and their relatives who reached a $10 million settlement with the archdiocese in September.

Denis Rigdon of Cape Girardeau agrees. He said Law's resignation should be a wake-up call to the church that changes are needed in the hierarchy.

"The church isn't looking at the real cause of what's going on," Rigdon said. "The church has been taking steps backward in recent years instead of moving forward and getting lay members actively involved in leadership.

"I think the church made some serious errors," Rigdon said. "I wish he would have resigned a long time ago."

If Law had resigned in April when it was rumored that he tried but the Vatican didn't accept it, things might have been different, Rigdon said. "Earlier, it would have made people feel good and start healing. Now it's so bad I just don't know."

Voice of the Faithful, a lay Catholic group formed in response to the crisis, said the resignation is a sad, although necessary, step in the church's ability to recover from the scandal.

Leibrecht agreed. "I'm very saddened by what has come about but I fully support the decision to resign. I know that had to be very painful for him."

Leibrecht, who will visit Immaculate Conception parish in Jackson today for a 5 p.m. Mass, said the church will continue to pray for Law. "We will pray for him in Mass and for the church and archdiocese that this will be a step to help them toward further healing."

Boston attorney Roderick MacLeish Jr., who represents more than 200 alleged victims, said Law's resignation was only a beginning to the process of helping victims.

"No one should believe that with the resignation of Cardinal Law this problem has ended, though this church is moving in a positive direction with this resignation," he said. "This is a day -- potentially -- of the start of reconciliation."

Features editor Laura Johnston contributed to this report.

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