The resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law confronts the Vatican with an ominous question: Will the fate of its prelates now be decided by the court of public opinion -- not just in America but worldwide.

Until now, the Vatican has tried to resist such pressures, but in the case of the Boston archbishop accused of covering up for abusive priests, that stance seems to be changing.

At least two other cardinals -- in Ireland and in England -- are under public pressure for their handling of sex abuse cases, raising the question of whether there could be a domino effect.

For months the Vatican resisted removing Law. When he first suggested stepping down in the spring, Pope John Paul II told him to return home and resolve the crisis.

But when Law returned to the Vatican last week, the scandal had reached such proportions it was threatening the credibility of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. This time, when the pope received Law in a Vatican audience Friday, John Paul accepted the archbishop's offer to resign.

"This sends a signal to every bishop in the world that sexual abuse of minors will not be tolerated and that any bishop who does not deal with it properly will find his head on the block," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America .

"If a cardinal can lose his job for this, so can any bishop," Reese said.

Reese and other Vatican experts agree that it probably was a combination of factors that led to John Paul's decision -- a new stream of shocking revelations of clergy misconduct, the possible bankruptcy of the archdiocese, possible indictments, demands by the laity and some priests that Law step down, as well as the archbishop's willingness to do so.

Throughout his 24-year papacy, John Paul has tried to firmly support his bishops, declaring on several occasions that the church cannot be subject to the whims of public opinion.

Four years ago, when the Austrian church was rocked by a sex scandal and demands for reforms, John Paul told the country's bishops:

"The church is not a democracy, and no one from below can decide on the truth."

Nineteen bishops, nine of them Americans, have resigned since 1990 in connection to sex scandals. Most were accused of personal involvement, unlike Law who was criticized for his mishandling of sex abuse claims against priests.

They included the Austrian cardinal, Hans Hermann Groer, who was sent into exile in 1995 following molestation claims from former high school boys. Neither Groer nor the Vatican directly admitted guilt.

The Vatican is highly suspicious of secular courts, pointing to the experiences of Catholics brought before courts in the communist countries in Europe during the Cold War and totalitarian regimes elsewhere.

There also is the fear of the innocent being swept up in the scandal.

Church officials frequently cite the examples of the false accusations of abuse against the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago or, more recently, Archbishop George Pell of Sydney, Australia. In October, an independent inquiry by a former judge dismissed a complaint against him.

Others in the Church have criticized the American media's treatment of the scandal.

Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, in an interview in an Italian Catholic magazine in June, complained that Law had been "questioned with methods that recall the dark days of Stalinist trials of churchmen of Eastern Europe." The Latin American prelate has been mentioned as a possible successor to John Paul.

Two European cardinals, Desmond Connell of Ireland and Cormac Murphy-O'Connor of England, are now embroiled in allegations that they failed to crack down on abusive priests. Sexual abuse victims are demanding Connell's resignation.

Whether the Vatican will be forced to react to these and other cases due to public pressure remains an open question.

George Weigel, an American biographer of John Paul, viewed Law's departure as a result of his realization he could no longer carry on.

But Weigel also said that a church that has overcome state interference in the appointment of bishops over the centuries "can't mortgage that freedom to op-ed or editorial pages."