Thursday, December 5, 2002

Cardinal Law stops meetings at Boston-area parish

Cardinal Bernard F. Law, attempting to assert his authority even as criticism of his conduct rises to fever pitch, has summarily banned all church agencies from holding meetings at a vibrant Newton parish headed by an outspoken pastor who has questioned church teachings on gays and women and has sometimes chafed at Law's leadership.

Law offered no explanation for the ban, but it comes after the pastor, the Rev. Walter H. Cuenin, invited more than 100 priests to a gathering tomorrow to discuss concerns about the archdiocese's current fund-raising drive. The priests planned to discuss the difficulty of raising money when the archdiocese is considering bankruptcy and has been forced to release documents containing allegations of a priest striking a woman, another using drugs, and others molesting children and having sex with adults.

Law's action, barring all ''archdiocesan-sponsored or archdiocesan-related meetings'' from taking place on the grounds of Our Lady Help of Christians Church, has infuriated area priests, as well as parishioners at the booming church.

....Over the last decade, Cuenin's WashingtonStreet church has been heavily used for archdiocesan events because of its size, location near Boston and the Mass. Pike, and ample parking. It is also just a few miles from the chancery, allowing the cardinal to make brief appearances at gatherings. The church was used most prominently by the archdiocese in 1995, when Law chose it as the site for the visit of Mother Teresa. And several events were scheduled for coming months, including a visit by Law on New Year's Eve.

Home to 2,600 Catholic households, the church ordinarily draws about 1,800 people to Sunday Mass, although attendance there, as elsewhere around the archdiocese, is down because of the sex abuse crisis. Our Lady's is generally regarded as one of the most vibrant of the 362 parishes in the Archdiocese. The church was the first of eight churches profiled in the book ''Excellent Catholic Parishes'' (Paulist Press, 2001).

The scandal has hit home at Our Lady's - the church is home to the former parishioners of Saint John the Evangelist Church in Newton, which before being closed had been led by the Rev. Paul R. Shanley, an alleged serial abuser of young men.

Cuenin has had a cordial but complex relationship with church leaders, and a somewhat unusual clerical career. Ordained in 1970, he once took a year off to work as a travel agent. He has occasionally been summoned to meet with his supervisors over comments that were perceived as too liberal.

He attracted Law's attention in April when he urged the Legislature to reject a ban on same-sex marriages, despite the support for the ban by the Catholic bishops of the state. Law demanded a copy of Cuenin's testimony and then asked for a meeting with the priest. But Law then canceled seven successive appointments with Cuenin and has never spoken with him about the issue.

The archdiocesan newspaper, The Pilot, which is controlled by Law, raised critical questions about Cuenin in September after Cuenin was quoted in the New Yorker as saying that the issues of birth control, divorce, and the ordination of married men and women should be discussed. Cuenin was quoted as saying that the church should not describe gays as ''disordered,'' and, most provocatively, as declaring that ''exceptional women are waiting to serve. We have married men who would make wonderful priests. We don't need more vocations - they are already here. Let's just accept them.''

But Cuenin holds an important position at the archdiocese - he is the director of pilgrimages, meaning that he accompanies the cardinal and local Catholics on trips to see the pope or to visit Rome. And he is a founder and leader of the Boston Priests Forum.

See, there's your textbook leadership problem. You've got a guy who publicly disagrees with the Church teaching he's supposed to be upholding. But his Cardinal won't confront him and leaves him, unquestioned, in diocesan leadership positions.

No wonder.

Domenico has more insight on the issue at his joint.

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