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.
“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.