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Excerpt from Rome Diary, No. 46

Robert Blair Kaiser, Editor of online magazine Just Good Company

No talk by any of Bruni's Vatican sources about the pattern of cover up that Law and his minions provided over the years for Boston's clerical scoundrels. No mention of Law's warm letters to the priests who he knew had violated little boys. No mention of Law's praise for a priest who had been diddling young postulants in a Boston nunnery, or that Law wrote that same priest an admiring letter about the depth of his faith and his courage.

If the Vatican had its druthers, we wouldn't know anything about these events, under the principle that such reporting "creates scandal." Translation: it makes people begin to have their doubts about the institution, specifically the institution of the priesthood. Much of the information has come to us from the plaintiffs' lawyers in Boston who are making Law accountable in ways he never imagined, seeking and getting and passing on documentation that has been sitting in Law's secret files for decades. When they were secret no longer, and their essence trumpeted in the headlines, we understood in a new way the Church's pattern: the institution comes first. The people's needs second, if at all.

We saw the pattern spelled out as policy in a Vatican order defrocking a pedophile-priest, Burns, who had been working for years in Boston after he'd been found out in Youngstown, Ohio. The order was issued in the name of the pope on May 25, 1999, by the Congregation for Divine Worship and Sacraments over a line (no signature) at the bottom that read Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez (who is prefect of that congregation). The order said Burns "ought to live away from the places where his previous condition is known." But it also offered the man's bishop an alternative. He could dispense from that clause "if the presence of the suppliant will cause no scandal." In other words, if no one knows about the man's pedophilia.

Joe Gallagher, a spokesman for Voice of the Faithful in Boston, claimed this document was "a smoking gun" that put the blame on the pope himself. That was going too far, according to Jason Berry, who (with Jerry Renner of the Hartford Courant) is writing a book on the whole U.S. sex-abuse crisis. In an email message, Berry told me, "I have the document and don't at all think it's a smoking gun. It's a pro forma dispensation of vows using canonical language from the Congregation...a boiler plate document." In a phone conversation, Berry tried to persuade Joe Gallagher not to blame the pope, but Gallagher insisted he must; and so Gallagher became a prime source for a long story on MSNBC that dealt with the smoking gun.

I put myself in the middle here. The pope didn't sign the document. But the document itself, even if "boiler plate" ­ in fact, especially if "boiler plate" ­ really tells us what the normal policy has been inside the Vatican: "Cover up the sins of our priests. If you do it well enough, you won't have to throw them out of the club." And that was pretty much policy until the U.S. bishops wrote their new norms in Dallas last June: offending priests have regularly been transferred from one venue to another. in the sexual scandal policy ....

From Rome Diary 46, December 23, 2002

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