Cardinal Bernard Law consulted with the Vatican on Monday during an abrupt trip to Rome, stirring speculation that he was stepping down or arranging for the Boston Archdiocese to declare bankruptcy.

The archdiocese shed no light Monday on the purpose of Law's visit, which came amid a new groundswell of criticism among once-loyal parishioners and priests about his handling of sexual abuse cases against priests.

"He's lost his diocese," said the Rev. Robert Bullock, a leader of the Boston Priests Forum, a group that represents about half of the approximately 600 priests in the archdiocese. "He's in hiding. He can't appear in public here. We need new leadership."

Law's trip comes a week after thousands of pages of the archdiocese's personnel files were released, painting a grim picture of rogue priests who engaged used drugs and engaged in sex. In one case, a priest seduced girls studying to become nuns, telling them he was the "second coming of Christ." In another case, a priest fathered at least two children and abandoned their mother while she was suffering a drug overdose.

Last week, an archdiocese financial panel authorized Law to seek Vatican approval for an unprecedented bankruptcy filing to deal with the 400 or so lawsuits brought by alleged victims of child-molesting priests.

In the past week, priests have begun circulating petitions among the clergy calling on Law to resign, joining a chorus of parishioners.

The pope is the only church official who can appoint and oust bishops. Even when a bishop decides to resign or retire, he cannot leave his post without the pope's authorization.

Ray Flynn, a former ambassador to the Vatican and former Boston mayor, said he did not expect a quick decision from the Vatican.

It was not known when Law left for Rome or when he planned to return, though he is scheduled to be answer questions in a sex abuse lawsuit Dec. 17.

C.J. Doyle, executive director of the Catholic Action League and an outspoken Law supporter, said he considers Law the person best suited to fix the scandal.

"Were he to leave now, it would simply be in the lap of his successor to clear up these problems," Doyle said. "The cardinal, by staying, is really making a sacrifice for the church, allowing his future successor to come in with a clean slate."

Still, members of the Boston Priests Forum planned to meet this week to draft a resolution calling for Law's resignation. Fifty priests have already signed a separate resolution asking Law to step down.

"The events of recent months and, in particular, of these last few days, make it clear to us 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," reads the statement.

The crisis began in January, when previously secret church documents were released, showing that Law and other church officials allowed priests accused of molesting children back into parish ministry, where many went on to abuse other youngsters.

After an initial outcry for Law's resignation from victim support groups and others, he appeared to be making strides toward restoring public confidence. He met with victims and a lay Catholic reform group that has been highly critical of him, and engaged in some of the routine public duties of the head of the archdiocese.

But the priest personnel files released last week contained some of the most shocking allegations to date.

"Most Catholics would be pleased to have him step down," said Bishop Joseph Imesch of Joliet, Ill. "Unfortunately, people link what's happening in Boston to every other diocese in the country."

If Law resigns, it could fuel demands elsewhere for other church leaders to follow suit.

Among them: Bishop Thomas Daily of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Bishop Robert Banks of Green Bay, Wis. They were among the bishops who formerly worked in the Boston Archdiocese and oversaw former Massachusetts priest John Geoghan, whose crimes touched off the crisis.