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Cardinal Pays Rome a Sudden Visit, Church Declines to Explain Reasons

By Pamela Ferdinand and Alan Cooperman
THE WASHINGTON POST -- BOSTON

Officials of the Roman Catholic Church declined to explain the reasons for Cardinal Bernard Law’s sudden trip to Rome this week, but experts on the Vatican predicted that both Law’s future and his archdiocese’s possible bankruptcy would be discussed.

Facing a rising chorus of calls for his resignation, Law arrived in Rome Sunday, just days after a judge forced the Boston archdiocese to release thousands of pages of documents about cases of child sexual abuse by eight priests. Files on an additional seven alleged pedophile priests were made public Monday, and still more documents are expected to be released Tuesday.

In a written statement Monday, the pope’s spokesman confirmed Law’s presence in Rome but did not specify the purpose or length of his visit. “The Cardinal came to inform the Holy See about various aspects of the situation in his Boston diocese,” the statement said.

“He came on his own initiative and was not called over by the Vatican,” the spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, added in an interview. “I do not know his agenda, but I know he will be meeting with various officials at the Vatican.”

In Boston, officials said Monday morning they expected to issue a statement about the trip, but later in the day they changed plans and said no details would be forthcoming. The pope’s official schedule did not include a meeting with Law Monday.

In addition to leading the Boston archdiocese, Law is the titular head of the American parish in Rome, Santa Susanna. Its priest, the Rev. Paul Robichaud, said, “My understanding is that the Cardinal is probably here to consult the Vatican on the issue of bankruptcy.”

An archdiocesan finance council last week formally granted Law authority to seek Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to resolve hundreds of sexual abuse lawsuits with a potential cost of more than $100 million. But some experts believe that Law’s own future is also in play.

“Things are coming to a head,” said the Rev. Gerald Fogarty, a church historian at the University of Virginia. “I would bet it has to do with both issues, namely the permission to go bankrupt and the naming of a co-adjutor,” or successor.

Fogarty said that the key question is whether Law has enough influence in Rome to step aside on his own terms, such as choosing his successor and moving to a senior post at the Vatican.

“One of the goals in a situation like this is saving face, so they may well find a place for him in Rome. That is what I would normally predict,” Fogarty said. But because Pope John Paul II spent much of his life in an embattled church under a communist regime, “there’s a different mentality, and part of it is that you should stick it out.”