Since Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the Wittenberg cathedral door, it is unlikely that protest outside a church has so signaled an irrevocable shift of consciousness: Sunday after Sunday for almost a year now, the front doors of Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross have been the backdrop for a vigil and speak-out by victims and families of the nearly two-decade spree of sexual exploitation of children by criminal priests under the watch of Bernard Cardinal Law. Throughout these vigils as throughout his regime, Law remained seigneurially opaque and aloof. As recently as two weeks ago, when he finally agreed to meet with representatives of the grassroots lay organization Voice of the Faithful, Law chastised them for not seeking his OK before founding the group. Law finally vacated his job on December 13, ten days after a court-ordered document dump exposed staggering new evidence of priestly blackmail, rape and conspiracy, demonstrating the degree to which Law had lied about his knowledge of the crime spree and his readiness to coddle the perpetrators. A letter signed by fifty-eight Boston-area priests urging Law to step down was the coup de grâce, and the Pope accepted Law’s resignation.

No one should mistake Rome’s gesture as a sign that the upper reaches of the Vatican hierarchy have become receptive to what journalist Penny Lernoux called “the cry of the people.” Far from it: The Vatican was making a boardroom call on a boss no longer able to manage his troops, raise money or call in political favors. John Paul II makes no secret of his suspicions about whether US courts can be trusted to deal fairly with church-related incidents. One of his closest lieutenants, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, recently invoked the names of Hitler and Stalin when talking about how the Massachusetts judiciary has handled the abuse cases. Nor has John Paul ever minced words about his distaste for inclusionary politics. “The church,” he declares, “is not a democracy, and no one from below can decide on the truth.”

Evidence suggests that the Vatican will hold fast to its contention that these depredations are symptomatic of lax American sexual morality and will continue its libelous murmurings that these rapes are perpetrated by gay priests rather than pedophiles, while failing to reckon with the actual scope of the sexual attacks–on mature women, young nuns, adolescent boys, little girls. (The gay-equals-pedophile write-off of this massive power abuse has been vehemently rejected by Voice of the Faithful and other from-the-pew activist groups. Organizations of those who have been sexually exploited by priests count almost 50 percent of their membership as female.)

But Vatican spin doctors are going to have a hard time dealing with these new voices from below. Earlier in this papacy, conservatives at St. Peter’s regularly vilified the horizontally constructed parish politics organized by proponents of “liberation theology” in Latin America as infiltration by Marxist ideologues. That characterization won’t wash here: Voice of the Faithful, for example, has its origins in the affluent suburbs west of Boston, among educated, politically moderate Catholic professionals.

Right-wing Vatican ideologues had been counting on an easy transition to the next papacy when the ailing John Paul dies, since the Pontiff appointed 117 of the 122 Cardinals who’ll elect the next Pope. But this annus horribilis may well be more consequential in the future of the church, and in Catholic identity, than the résumé of the next Pope. Because of the Boston crisis, a growing number of American Catholics have begun to articulate their faith in the terms they use to describe their citizenship: democratization, participation, a redress of grievances.