A group of American Catholics whose members say they were victims of child sex abuse by priests is protesting the Vatican's choice of a U.S. cardinal to officiate at a mass in memory of Pope John Paul II at Saint Peter's Basilica. The group blames Cardinal Bernard Law, the former archbishop of Boston, for switching priests known to have sexually abused minors from parish to parish rather than firing them.
The protest by the American Catholic group known as SNAP, or Survivor's Network of those Abused by Priests, comes at an embarrassing time for the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.
The protesters handed out leaflets in Saint Peter's Square expressing outrage that Cardinal Law should be allowed to preside over a memorial mass for the late pope.
Cardinal Law resigned as archbishop of Boston in December of 2002 after court records there showed he moved priests suspected of pedophilia among parishes in his archdiocese without alerting parents that their children were at risk. More than 500 people have filed abuse claims against the Boston archdiocese in recent years as a result of the scandal, and church authorities in Boston have had to pay out nearly $90 million in settlements.
The late pope appointed Cardinal Law arch-priest of Saint Mary Major, one of Rome's most important basilicas, and it is in that capacity that he was named to officiate at Monday's memorial mass, one of nine that are being held to mourn John Paul's passing.
Barbara Blaine, a founder of the victims' group, says she does not object to Cardinal Law being part of the conclave of cardinals that will begin meeting on April 18 to choose a new pope. But she told reporters as strong winds swept across Saint Peter's Square that the cardinal's public role in rendering tribute to John Paul at Monday's mass is an insult to the victims. Ms. Blaine calls Cardinal Law a symbol of the sex abuse scandal.
"Cardinal Law is like the poster child of this sex abuse scandal in the United States, and his presence only serves to cause more pain and suffering," she said. "And there's been so much pain and suffering already that we believe that the cardinals could find someone else to take this role. And, in a sense, it's like rubbing salt into open wounds, and it's insensitive to those who are mourning and grieving over the loss of the Holy Father."
Ms. Blaine, who says she was abused by her priest as a child, says SNAP wrote a letter to other U.S. cardinals asking them to persuade Cardinal Law to recuse himself from officiating at the mass. But she says the group received no answer from the American prelates. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Bishops Conference refused to comment on the matter, as did a spokesman for Cardinal Law.
Vatican officials say Cardinal Law's role in the memorial mass is a question of protocol because he has held many important church positions. They say the sex abuse scandal in the United States is over and done with because Cardinal Law resigned his U.S. post and that measures are in place within the U.S. church to punish abusive priests. They also say that Cardinal Law has apologized for his failures.
But Ms. Blaine, who says her group is made up of more than 5,000 people, says that if church leaders want to restore their credibility, they must confront and deal with the pain and the suffering of the victims and their family members.
The U.S. Catholic Church is the third biggest in the world, after those of Brazil and Mexico. Vatican experts say the undermining of the church's authority in the United States since the sex scandals is among several issues that the next pope will have to face.