Cardinal Bernard Law, the face of the church’s failure on child sexual abuse, dies at 86

Cardinal Bernard F. Law and Cardinal Agostino Cacciavillan, former apostolic nuncio to the United States, leave after Pope Francis' audience with members of the Roman Curia in Clementine Hall at the Vatican Dec. 22, 2014 (CNS photo/Paul Haring). Cardinal Bernard F. Law and Cardinal Agostino Cacciavillan, former apostolic nuncio to the United States, leave after Pope Francis' audience with members of the Roman Curia in Clementine Hall at the Vatican Dec. 22, 2014 (CNS photo/Paul Haring). 

As a younger man he was hailed for his courageous positions on desegregation and civil rights and his pastoral leadership of one of the poorest communities in the U.S. South, but his legacy is marred by his role in the cover-up and the persistence of the church’s sexual abuse crisis and the suffering it engendered. That scandal, smoldering for years, exploded into national view in Boston in 2002 after 18 years of Cardinal Bernard Law’s leadership. Cardinal Law passed away today in Rome after a lengthy illness; he was 86. His death was reported by local media and was confirmed by a church official to the Boston Globe.

After months of bad news emerged out of a Boston Globe Spotlight team investigation, Cardinal Law was subpoenaed in December 2002 to appear before a grand jury reviewing “possible criminal violations by church officials who supervised priests accused of sexually abusing children.” Just a few days later, a letter signed by 58 priests, many of them from his diocese, asked him to resign as archbishop. Not long after, on Dec. 13, 2002, he did.

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“It is my fervent prayer that this action may help the Archdiocese of Boston to experience the healing, reconciliation and unity which are so desperately needed,” the cardinal wrote then, adding, “To all those who have suffered from my shortcomings and mistakes, I both apologize and from them beg forgiveness.”

It was a steep fall from the episcopal heights he had known much of his ordained life as a national figure in the Catholic Church in the United States. It was soon accompanied by a retreat to Rome that was a further outrage to many.

Cardinal Law’s ecclesial prominence started out in a much different fashion. In 1964 then-Father Law was earning accolades and death threats for editorials in his diocesan paper, The Mississippi Register, urging the desegregation of Catholic schools and support among Catholics and the church for the emerging civil rights movement. Perhaps a childhood spent following his father, a U.S. Air Force colonel, to postings across the Caribbean and in Colombia—along the way learning to speak Spanish and Creole—allowed him to experience and accept diversity and integration in a way that few of his fellow white Southern Christians could.

Like other priests and bishops in the South at that time, Cardinal Law took a firm stand, endorsing the desegregation of schools. The Catholic population in Mississippi was tiny, but as editor of the Register, Father Law “did not pull his punches,” recalled the late Judge Gordon Martin, at the time a trial lawyer with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department in Mississippi. The Register's editorials “provided a sharp contrast with the racist diatribes of virtually all of the state's daily and weekly press.”

“To all those who have suffered from my shortcomings and mistakes, I both apologize and from them beg forgiveness.”

As a young priest, Cardinal Law had been horrified by the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963; his editorials and columns soon after and then persistently focused on civil rights and desegregation. As racial tensions and violence rose, he urged Catholics to support efforts to rebuild the burned and bombed-out churches in Mississippi’s African-American communities and, Mr. Martin recalled, was instrumental in the formation of a biracial interfaith Committee of Concern to aid that reconstruction.

On “race relations,” Cardinal Law was a “good guy in a place where race relations had been difficult,” said James O’Toole, a professor of American Catholic history at Boston College. “A lot of white parents did not want [desegregation] to happen,” Mr. O’Toole said. It was an issue Cardinal Law would be forced to confront again many years later in Boston when busing-based desegregation efforts led to mayhem on the streets of South Boston.

But in his final years as leader of Boston’s two million Catholics, Cardinal Law came to represent everything that was wrong with the church’s response to a metastasizing scandal of the sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy. Decades before, his decisions, like that of his predecessors, led to the reshuffling of “problem” priests throughout Boston and other dioceses as criminal investigations were discouraged and the outrage of parents and the suffering of victims was suppressed. His first reaction as the press began to expose stories of abuse close to home was predictably obdurate and confrontational.

In 1992, reacting to The Boston Globe’s coverage of the trial of James Porter, a priest who molested between 50 and 100 children between 1960 and 1967, the cardinal complained, “The papers like to focus on the faults of a few…. We deplore that." Then, infamously, he added, “We call down God’s power on our business leaders, and political leaders and community leaders. By all means we call down God’s power on the media, particularly the Globe.”

It was a toxic crisis response replicated by other bishops around the country, but the Boston case stood out as the exemplar of the church’s moral and institutional breakdown.

As each shocking revelation emerged out of a cascade of claims and court cases in Boston, Catholics around the country were dumbstruck by Cardinal Law’s apparent indifference to the suffering of victims and their families over the years and his willingness to rotate and attempt to rehab offending priests. “He became the public face of the crisis,” said Mr. O’Toole. Cardinal Law “seemed to embody all the various ways that bishops had mishandled this crisis in other dioceses all around the country.”

“The thing about him and really all the bishops that faced this that I still can’t really figure out,” said Mr. O’Toole, “is that there was always something in all of these cases where an abuse case was presented, and they would say something like, ‘Oh well, that’s just Father so-and-so, and we’ll just deal with him.’

The Boston case stood out as the exemplar of the church’s moral and institutional breakdown.

“They always saw it as individual cases rather than as part of a bigger pattern.”

To Mr. O’Toole that blindness suggested a crippling clericalism at the heart of the crisis. “Would these cases have been handled in a different way if parents had been at the table?” he asked.

“My sense is that he was loathe to publicly and automatically strip priests of their ‘status’ because of the ontological issues in play,” Charles R. Gallagher, S.J., a Boston College associate professor of history, commented via email. During the time of Cardinal Law’s priestly education, “there was a clear theology of priesthood based in ontological systems,” Father Gallagher said.

Father Gallagher believes Cardinal Law “was stuck between a clerical culture that asked him to preserve the dignity of the priesthood and a North American corporate culture which was both legally and institutionally punitive in the face of wrongdoing.”

In the estimate of Cardinal Law and many of his fellow bishops of the era, “priests were not simply ‘employees’ who could be expunged from their priesthood at will,” Father Gallagher said.

“A priest cannot be ‘fired’ from being a priest by an ordinary,” he explained. “The Trumpian ‘You’re fired!’ was not in any bishop’s playbook at the time. So, he tried to fix them at first.”

Listening to the cardinal testify in court attempting to explain the archdiocese’s inattention to priest-abusers, Mr. O’Toole, then the archivist for the Archdiocese of Boston, was surprised to hear the cardinal try to blame the problem on poor record keeping. “I recalled that point later,” he said, “when it became clear to me that there were two sets of personnel files—one on the official records and files for problem priests which were kept somewhere else, at the vicar’s office or elsewhere.”

“The Trumpian ‘You’re fired!’ was not in any bishop’s playbook at the time. So, he tried to fix them at first.”

The cardinal’s personal style likewise was not well adapted to a changing era. Mr. O’Toole recalls that the cardinal’s imperial persona was not just an act for public consumption but much the way the cardinal conducted himself in private with staff and subordinates. Cardinal Law had an “older sense of what the archbishop of Boston should be and how he should act in public.”

It was perhaps that haughty deportment that drew some of the national focus to Cardinal Law specifically during this period of the crisis, but “given the prevalence of the behavior, the prevalence of the leadership’s response and the eventual Dallas Charter,” Father Gallagher said, “I think his decisions were not unique.

“In the fading era when the word ‘churchman’ was applied to clerical power brokers,” Father Gallagher said, “Cardinal Law chose to abide by [arcane] church standards which had not adapted the theology of priesthood to the culture of the times.” That included a blunt resistance to the intervention of outside forces, even when it became apparent that criminal violations had occurred, according to Father Gallagher. “Fortunately, these standards have been updated—but at the expense of much criminality and sorrow.”

Ultimately Boston prosecutors declined to file criminal charges against the once powerful cardinal, and after his dramatic resignation, Cardinal Law was reassigned to Rome, where he lived out the rest of his life within the confines of Vatican society. He was appointed archpriest at Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the most significant basilicas in Rome, retiring from that position in 2011. The absence of accountability for their suffering appeared as a final offense to the victims and families the cardinal left behind in Boston.

Cardinal Law was born in Torreón, Mexico, on Nov. 4, 1931, the only child of Helen and Bernard Law. He was ordained in the Diocese of Natchez-Jackson in Mississippi in 1961. In 1968 he served as executive director of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Ecumenical and Interracial Affairs in Washington, D.C., and in 1971 he was named vicar general of the Natchez-Jackson diocese.

In 1973, he was made bishop of the Springfield-Cape Girardeau diocese in southern Missouri and was appointed chair of the Bishops Committee on Ecumenical and Interracial Affairs in 1975. He was named to the Vatican Commission on Religious Relations with Jews in 1976.

Pope John Paul II moved Cardinal Law to the Archdiocese of Boston in 1984 and made him a cardinal the following year.

By the end of his dreadful last year as archbishop of Boston, the archdiocese was drawing up plans for a bankruptcy declaration.

Even that early in his tenure there were warning signs of the approaching storm over sex abuse. The new archbishop received a letter from a fellow bishop expressing concerns about the conduct of a Father John Geoghan, who with another priest, Paul Shanley, would be at the center of the crisis and the media coverage when the abuses of children finally became widely known.

 

In 1984 Cardinal Law was actually an early supporter of a report being prepared by canon lawyer Tom Doyle, a Dominican, then looking into what was already a growing scandal of child sexual assault by priests. At the time Father Doyle came to believe that Cardinal Law was prepared to respond as a reformist ally in the effort to address the crisis. The cardinal even provided $1,000 to cover photocopying costs, so the report could be sent to 150 U.S. bishops. Sadly little substantially changed after the report was distributed.

By the end of his dreadful last year as archbishop of Boston, the archdiocese, facing more than nearly 500 claims and an estimated $100 million in settlement costs, was drawing up plans for a bankruptcy declaration. A year after Cardinal Law’s resignation, the archdiocese, now led by Cardinal Seán O’Malley, had acknowledged more than 1,000 victims.

In 2011 the archdiocese published a list of 159 archdiocesan priests implicated in the crisis, and in 2015 The Boston Globe published a comprehensive database, including priests from orders or who had been ordained outside the archdiocese, identifying 271 accused priests. Settlements, reparations and counseling for victims since 2003 have cost the archdiocese $250 million.

Correction, Dec. 21, 11:58 a.m. ET: A reference to “Byzantine Church standards” was clarified to avoid confusion. The comment was meant to refer to little-known church protocols on the handling of priests, not to the Byzantine Catholic Church.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Robert Lewis
9 months 1 week ago

The removal of Cardinal Bernard Law to the Vatican City State was one of the blackest stains on the reputation of John Paul II. The United States government should have demanded his extradition, to face charges in Massachusetts.

Reyanna Rice
9 months 1 week ago

From what I recall, charges were never filed in Boston. If there were then how was Law able to travel to the US as has been reported??

Vincent Gaglione
9 months 1 week ago

The persona and image of Pope Francis is a striking contrast to that of the "churchman" Bernard Law, a reminder of the nature of service expected and required from the ordained throughout their lives. The assignment of Law to the Rome basilica when he left Boston in disgrace demonstrated how ingrained the "churchman" attitude pervaded Church leadership.

How many of Law's recommendations for bishoprics in the USA preserve that "churchman" tradition? Certainly looking at the moral outrages of the current Trump administration regarding refugees, undocumented immigrants, health care for all citizens, nuclear armaments, etc., and the silence of so many prominent bishops on these topics, gives pause to any thinking Catholic!

Ellen B
9 months 1 week ago

How many people left the church because of the actions of Cardinal Law? He actively participated in a cover-up. He actively attacked the Boston Globe for telling the truth. Unfortunately, that same behavior was not limited to Cardinal Law. Also unfortunately, he had a hand in selecting some of the leaders who are still in place. Unquestionably he did some good in his life but the evil will remain long after his death.

Vince Killoran
9 months 1 week ago

And to add insult to injury Law continued to wield power behind the scenes after receiving his plush position in Rome. Pure arrogance.

Al Podboy
9 months 1 week ago

Our Church is all about forgiveness, but the past tolerance of these many pedophiles ... make Her current position on sexual harassment ring hollow. She has lost the moral high ground ... can She recover?

Mona Villarrubia
9 months 1 week ago

“ Oh well, that’s just Father so-and-so,”
Ironically it was a similar attitude of mine that allowed me to remain Catholic, study theology, and teach high school for 27 years. My abuser was an individual aberration in an otherwise holy and sacred institution. Then I began to talk to my family members and 4 other victims emerged in my immediate family. Oh, well. It was just two evil individuals in a church community of compassionate and caring priests.
Then came Boston 2002. It was everywhere and it was known. Systemic coverup of hundreds of abusers across the globe. Secret files, forced confidentiality, avoidance of legal action, active advocacy of conservative statutes of limitation, treatment of the abusers, dismissal of the victims. I clung to my church desperate for signs of change, telling my students, “They are committed to doing the right thing.”
Then cardinal Francis George, who helped write the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, was found to have been protecting and keeping in ministry (and away from his advisory board )credibly accused priests. I couldn’t defend my church any longer. I couldn’t ask my students to trust the leadership of the church to be honest with them or to protect them - the children - from abusing priests.
I lost my faith and trust in my church. I am no longer Catholic and that hurts me and makes me angry to this day. I am also no longer a religious educator: I lost my career. I found another church and another career but I feel homesick at this time of year. Then I read an article like this and I grieve once again and let go a little more.

Rhett Segall
9 months 1 week ago

Wasn't it the accepted understanding in the mental health community at the time, the 70's, 80's, and 90's, that sexual abusers suffered a psychological disorder that could be effectively treated by the proper therapy? In addition, weren't the victims also offered therapy and financial compensation? From today's perspectve the response at the time seems to have been a pathetic white wash and definitely criminal; but is it fair to judge the situation simply by today's perspective?

Ellen B
9 months 1 week ago

An emphatic yes, it is "fair". First we are talking the recent past, not 100 years ago. By the 80's the push was on for registries for pedophiles. So the social environment was set for today's laws.
Beyond that, this "shepherd" knowingly put his flock in danger again & again. If therapy did not work the first or second time, why keep putting a priest in a position of trust? Why hide from potential victims that a wolf is in their midst? There is a difference between having a desire & acting upon that desire, surely Cardinal Law recognized this.
The need for silence & stealth would have made a reasonable person question were the decisions being made for the good of the church or a powerful group within the church. Cardinal Law went so far as to attack the Boston Globe for telling the truth. Since when is the "expedient" the right thing to do? Since when has the Catholic Church endorsed attacking the truth?
Finally, millions of Catholics left the church, millions of Catholics lost their faith as a result of this “leadership”. Cardinal Law and his ilk bear responsibility for that.

Rhett Segall
9 months 1 week ago

You're right' Ellen, about the fact that many priests were repeat offenders and that this radically alters the heinousness of the cover ups by Cardinal Law. Thank you for underscoring this for me.

Mona Villarrubia
9 months 1 week ago

Rhett, your point would be fair if you were talking about men who admitted to being pedophiles by inclination but who had not abused. Pedophiles who had abused no longer deserved that consideration: they were now criminals and should have been reported to the police. Nowhere in our society in the 70’s til now has it ever been suggested that people charged with criminal sexual assault of children be offered therapy over jail time. The problem has been that these abusers were protected from the legal system. The Church was harboring men accused of (often multiple times) criminal sexual assault of children and should have been held accountable under the law. Bishops should never have offered therapy as an alternative to turning them over to the legal system.

Rhett Segall
9 months 1 week ago

Mona, you are right and I am wrong!

Mona Villarrubia
9 months 1 week ago

Rhett I hope I didn't sound like I was attacking you. If I did I apologize. But it is a clarification that needs to be made.

Rhett Segall
9 months 1 week ago

No I didn't feel personally attacked at all. Clarification is the fruit of healthy dialogue. Merry Christmas!

Rhett Segall
9 months 1 week ago

No I didn't feel personally attacked at all. Clarification is the fruit of healthy dialogue. Merry Christmas!

rose-ellen caminer
9 months 1 week ago

The parents should have and could have reported them to the police too. Its not just the hierarchy that is to blame. No cover ups would have been possible had parents done what people do when a crime is committed; file a police report and bring charges against the perpetrator. Why didn't they? Were they covering up too for Holy Mother Church? If so, then it was a cultural thing and the hierarchy is but a part of it and should not be made a scapegoat for a mindset that was pervasive among the faithful at the time.
That Law was ahead of his flock when it came to race relations also shows his moral character. He should be remembered for that more so then this cover up which was symptomatic of ignorance [ they can be reformed] and compassion[ not wanting to destroy the life of the priest].The objective sin was that children were being victimized, but if he sincerely believed in rehabilitation ,which many at the time did, then its problematic to say he should have known better.
[Even today with all our profess knowledge of psychology and sociology, children often are still allowed to remain in abusive relations with adults on the grounds that "children are better off with their parents"; even when the parents are out of control addicts or there are report of abuse! Sad but true even today. So this notion that children's rights are equal to adults fails to be upheld in too may instances even today. What Law did is no worse then what the children's protective agencies still do; allow children to remain with adults who are being investigated for abuse].
If the parents did not know better then to call the police, he was no different then them in that regards. Ignorance on this was pervasive like on other sexuality issues at the time. Be not too hard on Cardinal Law, a hero of the Civil Rights movement.

Michael Seredick
9 months 1 week ago

Dear Mona - Please know that I have the same feelings you describe regarding faith in the Church and being a former Catholic. I worked part-time as a music director in the church for 35 years. I have difficulty returning to Mass. Knowing your story helped me cope with my anger. I hope my reply helps you to know countless others feel the same.

Mona Villarrubia
9 months 1 week ago

Thank you Michael.

rose-ellen caminer
9 months 1 week ago

You don't believe the Catholic Church was founded by Jesus Christ, Mona? If you do believe it was, then how can you leave the church? The church has members who mess up and sin, that should not invalidate the church as a manifestation of Jesus Christ's salvation for humanity. People sin. People in the church sin. People in high office in the church sin. You think the cover up was evil? What about the inquisition? Did you have to defend the inquisition to your students? No, and you don't have to defend these sex scandal cover up sins committed by the members of the church to your students either. You are as much church as any of them or all of them. The church is made up not just of mystics and saints but of lowly fallible corruptible sinners, in all places and all times saying and doing all kinds of sinful things as people are wont to do, even in the name of their church. Even catholic people!Give up your pride Mona and come back to the church!

Bill Mazzella
9 months 1 week ago

The key word here is the "ontological" view of the priesthood. Where priests and bishops are elevated above all else in the church. Contrary to Jesus' mandate that the last shall be first and the greatest should serve more than dominate. That ontological mark is still here in the titles "Excellency" "Your Grace", "Father", etc. Still evident in bishops who regale in fine robes and ostentatious behavior. Yet this is not a reason to leave. It is our Church. The Church may be a whore. But she is "our whore" as Dorothy Day said. We are all sinners and we need to continually stress Matthew 25 and seek through the mercy of God to serve all our brothers and sisters and love those outside our faith obeying the mandate of Jesus.

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