When the clergy sex-abuse scandal broke in Boston in 2002, Cardinal Bernard Law had all the reason to think that he would survive. The law had a place among the powerbrokers of the heavily Catholic city. He was a friend of the U.S. president, an envoy of Pope John Paul II.
But after months of disclosures about how he had protected child-molesting priests, the Law was driven away if the church was in a crisis in the U.S. and around the world.
“We are still reeling from the catastrophic damage to the Catholic church’s credibility,” said Christopher Bellitto, an expert on the history of the church at Kean University in New Jersey.
The law, the disgraced former archbishop of Boston, who died Wednesday at the age of 86 in Rome, was an unlikely catalyst for this darkest chapter of American Catholicism.
He arrived in Boston in 1984 with a record of civil rights activism, from the 1960s, as a young priest in Mississippi, where he sometimes traveled in the trunks of cars for the security. He had lived in many countries and was educated at Harvard university. He was dedicated to building relationships with Jews and Christians.
“The promise, that he seemed to represent when he first came to Boston, it appeared to herald a new day,” said James O’toole, a Boston College historian.
But that goodwill evaporated in 2002, when The Boston Globe began a series of stories about how the Right and his predecessors had failed to protect young people from pedophile priests.
The articles are based in part on a previously confidential church records. In the middle of the files, that stomach-churning details of how priests had sexually abused children, were notes of sympathy and concern of the leaders of the church, including the Law, for the accused clergy.
“I realize that this is a difficult time for you and those close to you,” Law wrote in 1994, when the priest John Geoghan, who already have a record of allegations and would eventually be accused of molesting more than 130 children. “If I can help you in some way please contact me. Be assured you are remembered in my prayers.”
The law said he relied on the incorrect advice of doctors and psychiatrists in allowing priests in the parishes. But the documents unearthed by the Globe showed a record of the leaders of the church, ignoring requests for help from the parents and the expression of hostility towards those who came forward to say that she was injured.
Suddenly, an archbishop accustomed to being photographed at the White House or with Cuba’s Fidel Castro was now visible in the court, under the destructive examination of lawyers for the victims.
The Rev. Thomas Doyle, a former canon lawyer at the Vatican Embassy in Washington who had worked years ago with the Law, said he once thought that the cardinal would play in a completely different role in how the church responded to abuse.
In 1984, when the case of a child-molesting former priest in Louisiana by the name of Gilbert Gauthe was the attention on the problem, Doyle and others tried to warn that the nation’s bishops that abuse was widespread in the American dioceses, and they must clean the house. “Bernard Law, believed in us and was an active supporter and advocate for what we were doing,” Doyle recalled.
At a national conference, Law, urged his fellow bishops to follow Doyle’s advice. They didn’t know. Still, Doyle hoped that the Law countenance is as the archbishop of such an important church post Boston would make a difference.
When news reports started about how the Law had sheltered guilty priests, Doyle was stunned.
“I had a hard time believing that the man I had known and trusted was behind one of the worst cover-ups in the country,” said Doyle, who was a lawyer for the victims. “I was stunned when I saw that his arrogant attitude. I will never know what happened after he got to Boston. Maybe it was the influence of his rise in the hierarchy, but whatever it was, it was tragic.”
The damage to the church can be counted, not only in the loss of the moral authority, but also in stark numbers: more than $3 billion in settlements with victims paid since 1950, thousands of priests removed, and a stain of disgrace, which may not be removed for the generations.
Law misconduct ultimately inspired the change that Doyle and his colleagues first sought in the 1980’s. In the AMERICAN church, there is a comprehensive child protection program and a new policy of the Vatican that requires the removal of the guilty priests, even though those standards are not always enforced.
“Had he not designed for the terrible cover-up in Boston, the victims there might never angry and determined enough to come forward,” Doyle said. “In a real sense, Cardinal Law is an anti-hero. His attempts to control and cover-up led to the 2002 tsunami, which in turn led to social acceptance of the evil of sexual abuse.”