Where clarity is called for, cardinals leave doubt

This Just In...

April 26, 2002|By DAN RODRICKS

CATHOLIC CARDINALS work in mysterious ways. It goes with the job. Speaking in what laymen hear as that murky, Old World language serves to enhance the cardinals' image as sages of the Roman Catholic Church. I think we all appreciate a bit of this mystery -- just as we appreciate an ornate cathedral despite its outlandish cost -- but not at a time when American Catholics are seeking clarity on a painful matter.

Coming out of their deliberations in Rome, the American cardinals issued a "Final Communique" calling for a special process "for the dismissal from the clerical state of a priest who has become notorious and is guilty of the serial, predatory, sexual abuse of minors."

That's relatively clear, easily decipherable. But then came this:

"A special process for cases which are not notorious but where the diocesan bishop considers the priest a threat for the protection of children and young people, in order to avoid grave scandal in the future and to safeguard the common good of the Church."

The sages of my church confuse me. They speak in mysterious tongues. This strange distinction between "notorious" and "not notorious" makes them seem more concerned with avoiding "grave scandal in the future" than with protecting children from predators.

The cardinals apparently want to separate cases that are "notorious" -- taken from the Latin notus, meaning "known" -- from "cases which are not notorious," meaning not reported in The Boston Globe or some other major journal.

So the cardinals seemed to be saying that, while priests who sexually abuse children and who become "notorious" in the process might be defrocked -- the pope said there was "no place" for them in the religious life -- those whose offenses stay off the front pages might be dealt with in a more forgiving manner by their bishops.

The cardinals seem to be suggesting special consideration for the priest whose offenses remain only shadows and whispers?

Isn't that what created this painful mess to begin with?

Wacky Willie Don redux

Leave it to William Donald Schaefer, state comptroller, living legend and one of the wackiest Marylanders since Cecil Calvert, to defend the indefensible, to champion the underdog, to stick up for the little guy. This week, he championed Peter Angelos' quest for a $1 billion legal fee from the state -- even after the many-times-millionaire attorney agreed to take a mere dollop of what he'd originally demanded for his role in the Big Tobacco case.

If anyone needed proof that the former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor can still dive off the deep end with the best of them, they should have heard Schaefer on Angelos' agreement to take only $150 million -- I actually just wrote the phrase "only $150 million" -- for representing the state against cigarette manufacturers. (Originally, Angelos had sought 25 percent of the state's $4 billion take, as per a contract he struck with the Maryland attorney general, Joe Curran.)

"You know, Joe, I think this is a dirty trick," Schaefer said when Curran came before the board seeking approval of the agreement that would end that long-running dispute between Angelos and the state. "Don't you feel strange as a lawyer beating down another lawyer?" Schaefer asked Gentle Joe.

As with many Schaefer statements over the years, you can never be sure what he meant. A title attorney back in the day, Schaefer seemed to be chiding Curran for being traitorous to a brother lawyer. To my ear, he seemed to be saying: "Don't we stick together when we're fleecing clients? Where's your tribal loyalty, Joe?"

More than likely, Schaefer feels -- as many lawyers feel -- that a deal's a deal, even if the deal would result in an outrageous sum of money for a lawyer whose role in the public-interest lawsuit was surpassed by that of other lawyers and other attorneys general in other states seeking damages from Big Tobacco. Remember: The tobacco companies agreed to the national settlement before Maryland's case even went to court.

With the dispute at last ended -- and with Angelos apparently satisfied to get the $150 million -- Schaefer, whose present job makes him watchdog of the public purse, is still groaning that Angelos got a bad deal. It's ridiculous. It's wacky. It's Schaeferesque. He doesn't come up kooky all the time, can't high-dive off the deep end every day, like he used to. But now and then, at age 80, Willie Don can still nail one.

Bum steer from PETA

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the extreme animal rights group -- the "PETA People" -- have motivated my 9-year-old daughter to write letters to a major pet-store chain to protest the warehousing of puppies and kittens and to the South Korean Embassy to protest the eating of puppies and kittens. But apparently, the PETA People have failed to motivate Baltimore Police Commissioner Ed Norris to investigate his officers' handling of a runaway steer in West Baltimore. Good.

According to WBAL-TV, the steer got away from a slaughterhouse last week and ran through an alley behind Pennsylvania Avenue. Members of a SWAT team shot it with two tranquilizer darts. That didn't work, so an officer shot the steer two more times with a 12-gauge shotgun, and that brought the animal down.

An outraged PETA representative said police should have tried to shoot the animal with more tranquilizer darts. Norris says he's confident his officers did the right thing; he's not devoting any more time to the matter.

Where were the PETA People to protest the hundreds and thousands of homicides -- human deaths -- that have occurred in this city over the last decade? Once in a while this group says something that makes sense. Way too often for its own good, it says something that is just plain cracked.

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