In an extraordinary rebellion by Catholic clerics against a bishop whom they had pledged to obey, 58 Boston-area priests called on Cardinal Bernard F. Law Monday to resign, saying he was no longer an effective spiritual leader.
The priests signed a three-paragraph letter praising Law for his many positive contributions to Boston, but declaring that "your position as our bishop is so compromised that it is no longer possible for you to exercise the spiritual leadership required for the church of Boston."
The priests hand-delivered the letter to Law's Brighton residence Monday afternoon. The cardinal was in Rome Monday, meeting with Vatican officials about his own future and the crisis facing the archdiocese. It was not clear whether he has seen the letter.
"While this is obviously a difficult request, we believe in our hearts that this is a necessary step that must be taken if healing is to come to the archdiocese," the letter said. "The priests and people of Boston have lost confidence in you as their spiritual leader."
The signers make up a small minority of Boston's Catholic clergy, but are far more than have previously called for Law's resignation. Among them are a dozen religious order priests and two retired priests, in addition to active diocesan priests. There are about 550 active diocesan priests in the Boston archdiocese plus 300 retired priests and 700 religious-order priests.
"This wasn't an easy decision, because the day I was ordained, I knelt at Cardinal Law's feet and promised him obedience," said the Rev. Emile R. Boutin Jr., parochial vicar at Immaculate Conception Parish in Stoughton. "But this institution is limping miserably.
"Our ability to be effective has practically ceased," he said. "It's impossible to fund-raise. And any of us who work with young people are enormously compromised. It's a really dark day."
Boutin said he believes that his promise of obedience is less important than his duty to obey his own conscience, and he said that he views the clergy sexual-abuse crisis as a turning point in church history.
"It feels to me like one of those pivotal moments in the history of the church, like the edict of Constantine, the Orthodox-Catholic split, the Protestant Reformation, or the Second Vatican Council," he said. "Now there is the clergy scandal, whose epicenter is Boston. It seems to me so evident that this is not about Cardinal Law at all, and even if his hands were totally clean, he needs for the well-being of the church to recognize that he has become the lightning rod, and he needs to step away, so we can bring in leadership from the outside."
Catholic priests promise obedience to their bishop, and many are reluctant to speak out about any controversial issue, let alone criticize their own bishop.
"I can't think of another case in modern American history, or anywhere else, where a significant number of priests have called publicly for the resignation of their bishop because of a loss of spiritual leadership," said the Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame. "Usually when the behavior is egregious, the priests don't have to do anything, because the bishops themselves resign. This represents a sea change in the previously dutiful and compliant and even fearful attitudes that priests have toward their bishops."
McBrien said that signing the letter was not a violation of the priests' vow of obedience.
"Obedience means you are cooperative to the fullest extent of your ability . . . but when it's clear to your conscience that your bishop has lost his capacity for spiritual leadership, as clearly seems to be the case in Boston, then your obedience is to a higher law, to the good of the church," McBrien said.
The letter was e-mailed to some priests, but others did not receive it and therefore did not have a chance to decide whether to sign.
Some said they believe the letter is a mistake.
"I don't think it's my role to demand the resignation of the cardinal," said the Rev. Robert J. Carr, parochial vicar at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. "This is a problem that cannot be solved just by the resignation of the cardinal — it goes deeper than that — and those people who are calling for his resignation do not understand that. It's the wrong tactic."
Law's spokeswoman, Donna M. Morrissey, said she would not comment on correspondence between priests and their bishop.
"Until we have time to properly review it, I wouldn't be able to comment," she said. "But with a letter sent from brother priests to their bishop, it would be much more productive for the priests to discuss that with their bishop."
Morrissey reiterated comments she made Sunday, declaring that priests are free to express opinions about Law's status. "Any priest should feel that they should express their opinion, and we want to hear their concerns," she said.
There was some debate among priests who signed the letter about whether to wait to gather more signatures, but the majority wanted to act now, because of public anger over disclosure last week that Law and other bishops had failed to remove from ministry priests accused of sex with minors, violence against women, and drug abuse.
The Rev. Robert W. Bullock, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in Sharon, said he and other leaders of the Boston Priests Forum will discuss Friday whether to produce another letter with more signatories.
"This letter was done with great pain and great thought, but also with a sense of responsibility to the situation in which we're involved," Bullock said. "To come to this point is very, very painful. It's a real tragedy."
Several of those who signed the letter said they felt under pressure from members of their parishes to show they shared parishioners' concern about Law, who many have criticized for failing to remove abusive priests from ministry.
"I felt pressure over the past two weeks from the parishioners, who were beginning to say that my silence was being interpreted as approval of the cardinal's actions," said the Rev. Charles E. Collins, pastor of Saint John the Evangelist Parish in North Cambridge.
"When I mentioned to the people (over the weekend) that I had signed the letter, there was applause at the four Masses. There were tears in some people's eyes, but they still shook my hand and said it was something that needed to be done."
Collins said he had prayed and thought for nearly a year about whether to speak out.
"The leadership of Cardinal Law in caring for this portion of the Lord's vineyard has been effective for many years," he said. "But the revelations of the systematic failure of his leadership to stem this abuse, for many years, has eliminated any hope that healing and growth can happen.
"He personally has increased the damage to children, to women, and to communities by transferring these priests from parish to parish, and that damage prevents the church of Boston from growing in faith. I can't effectively proclaim the Gospel with this going on."
The Rev. Paul W. Berube, parochial vicar of Saint Mary Parish in Chelmsford, also said he has been agonizing over what to do.
"After a long, long time, I came to the conclusion that people in the pews were directly and indirectly asking us to do this," he said. "I kept hearing, 'What are the priests doing about this?' Above all, I could feel the pain of the people, saying to us, 'What are you doing?' "
David Clohessy, the national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, welcomed the letter.
"Over the last decade, you could count on two sets of hands the number of priests who publicly sided with victims and criticized their bosses, which is extremely hard to do," he said. "From a victim's perspective, this is very healing and very encouraging. These men have taken a very brave step in an organization that historically does not reward such courage."
Priests are also speaking up about other issues. The leaders of the Boston Priests Forum sent Law a letter Monday opposing the possibility that the archdiocese would file for bankruptcy.
"For the church, it will be like a virus; it will take on a life of its own; it will become our predicate: The Church is bankrupt," the letter said. "Already damage has been done. The cartoons, parodies, and ridicule are now in force. It will be a stigma, a mark of shame we will all have to carry."
Lay Catholics are also speaking up. The planning council of the Parish Leadership Forum, a centrist group of laypeople who are active on parish councils and other church-approved panels, sent Law a letter asking him to resign.
"Speaking candidly, and with sadness," they wrote, "we believe that your role in the sex abuse scandal has damaged your ability to effectively lead this Archdiocese and that this situation is now beyond repair."