For a church whose members for generations were expected to docilely "pay, pray and obey," the sexual abuse crisis has outraged and energized a Catholic laity who are demanding accountability from their leaders. And perhaps most significant, it has spurred normally loyal priests, who are bound by promises of obedience, to speak out against bishops who they feel have shirked responsibility.
Law's resignation, which was accepted Friday by Pope John Paul II, "was brought about by the consistent pressure from the ordinary people of the church," said Paul F. Lakeland, whose book, The Liberation of the Laity: In Search of an Accountable Church, will be published next year. "This is a victory for nobody but an opportunity for the church to think again about how it chooses its leaders."
Conor O'Clery, a reporter for The Irish Times covering Law's resignation in Boston, was fascinated by the uprising there.
"It's getting more militant by the minute," O'Clery said last week shortly before Law's resignation was announced.
"Here you have priests in open rebellion, you have lay people in open rebellion. You don't have that in Ireland," O'Clery said. "You'd never question a priest, much less a bishop, much less a cardinal. The higher the ranking, the closer to God."
The first revelations in January were prompted by an Irish Catholic judge, Constance M. Sweeney. She overruled a previous judge and ordered the release of 10,000 pages of secret church documents after accusing the archdiocese of dragging its feet in providing information about an abusing priest. In so doing, she bucked a decades-long tradition of Boston judges who didn't dare challenge the powerful Catholic Church.
Those revelations prompted a group of lay Catholics in Wellesley, a suburb of Boston, to form Voice of the Faithful. They intended it to be a moderate voice to demand accountability from the church. It grew rapidly through word of mouth and the Internet from the 25 people who gathered that evening in January to 25,000 members in more than 40 states.
"We're mostly middle-aged, middle-class, middle-America, family-values people. These are not radical people," said Jim Post, president of Voice of the Faithful.
"In our minds, it is absolutely essential that the church bring in the laity," Post said. "Here, I think something much more than a pebble has been dropped in the pond. The Japanese have a word -- tsunami."
But what may have been even more damaging for Law were the 58 priests who signed a letter last week calling on him to resign. There were indications that many more priests shared the sentiment and were looking for an opportunity to express it.
"The most significant thing in this whole story is the fact that a significant number of priests in Boston publicly called for Cardinal Law's resignation, that it became public that the cardinal had lost the support of his priests," said the Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame. "When the priests went public with the call for resignation, I knew then it was a matter of days, weeks or months at most."
John Carroll, the first bishop of Baltimore, which was the first diocese established in the country, was elected to his episcopal office in 1789 by his fellow priests.
"Rome allowed them to elect their bishop because they asked if that could be done," said Brother Thomas W. Spalding, author of The Premier See: A History of the Archdiocese Of Baltimore, 1789-1994.
That practice was to have stopped with Carroll, but he supported the election of bishops and allowed his successor to be selected by the priests, a fact he neglected to mention in his correspondence with Rome. The fact that Carroll was not fond of the man chosen was strong evidence of an election, Spalding said. "He said [to the Vatican] that he consulted his priests, but it was obvious it was the result of an election, because Carroll himself would never have chosen [Leonard] Neale as his successor."