Cardinal Bernard Law's resignation over his handling of priestly sex-abuse marks a dramatic turning point in the evolution of the scandal - and in the history of the Roman Catholic church.
Never before has a church leader with such a prominent national and global profile been forced to surrender his post under pressure from priests, laity, the media, and wider public opinion. Law, whose departure was accepted by Pope John Paul II early Friday after a series of meetings at the Vatican, said he hoped the move would help bring the "healing, reconciliation, and unity which are so desperately needed."
Some critics worry, however, that Law's stepping down will dilute the outcry against the church - and that the push for needed structural reforms will fade. They argue that widespread abuse by priests stems not so much from misguided individuals as from a centuries-old culture of secrecy and lack of accountability.
Cardinal Law's departure does not constitute the waving of a "magic wand," says Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer who has filed numerous suits against the Boston church on the part of alleged victims of priest abuse. "There is enormous rot within the system," he says.
To that end, Law's temporary replacement - Bishop Richard Lennon - must break "the patterns of secrecy," says James Post, president of Voice of the Faithful, a powerful lay group based in Boston.
Yet the accountability that so many critics hope for is clearly on the rise. Cardinal Law's departure marks the first time an American bishop has resigned over the handling of priest-abuse scandals - although one Irish and one Canadian bishop have left under similar circumstances. Some are calling for the ouster of New Hampshire bishop John McCormack, who this week agreed to a first-ever deal with state prosecutors admitting that his diocese may have criminally endangered children.
For all bishops, Law's resignation sends a clear message, says Chester Gillis, chairman of the theology department at Georgetown University in Washington: "Get all the bad news out as fast as you can, and then attempt to reconcile and rebuild." In other words, he says, "Better come clean."