Bernard Law Was the Face of a Dysfunctional Catholic Church
By Alfred P. Doblin
December 21, 2017
|Pope Francis incenses the coffin of late Cardinal Bernard Law|
There was a time when “men of the cloth” were revered. To have a priest in the family was a sign of pride for many a Catholic parent. Priests were good men, focused on helping others.
Then there was the time of Boston Cardinal Bernard Law. And nothing would be the same again
In fairness to Law, who died Wednesday in Rome at age 86, he was not the only prelate who enabled predator priests to destroy the lives of hundreds upon hundreds of children. But through the great reporting of The Boston Globe that pulled back the drapes on this sordid system, Law became the face of this institutional evil, and his legacy will remain solely that, for generations to come.
I spent 1988 to 1998 working in the Catholic press, including stints as editor of the archdiocesan newspapers for Detroit and Los Angeles. During those years, I can’t recall a pedophilia case coming to my attention. In retrospect, that is not surprising, since during that time bishops were still able to keep a firm lid on accusations. Priests could be reassigned for many reasons, and unless you were connected into a particular parish you would have no idea if there was a nefarious reason for the shift. And even then, facts would have been hard to come by.
Somewhere in the early 90s, I met Law briefly in Chicago. He was holding court in the lounge of the Chicago Hilton Towers a few hours before an American Cardinals Dinner, a large fundraising event for The Catholic University of America. He was friendly and imperial at the same time. He was at the height of his power.
Law and New York Cardinal John O’Connor were the conservative voices of the American church, often referred to as “Law and Order.” This was before the long-running television show of the same name became ubiquitous.
To understand how decades of sexual abuse could go unchecked, you have to understand how much Catholics wanted to believe “their priests” were good people. That is how predators were able to do so much damage — victims were led to believe they were at fault, parents were cautious about challenging the church, and even hard-nosed skeptics had to be confronted with overwhelming evidence of systemic dysfunction before they were willing to chip away at the protective layers surrounding the hierarchical institution.
Church officials like Law did inestimable damage — they ruined lives, destroyed many peoples’ faith in the Catholic Church, and in the subsequent paying out of billions of dollars in legal settlements, they also prevented the church from using that money for good.
In 2002, Law resigned as archbishop of Boston. The sexual abuse cases of priests like John Geoghan and Paul Shanley had made him toxic. Yet Law was never criminally charged, and he landed softly in Rome, as the titular leader of one of the church’s major basilicas.
He is expected to be given a full cardinal’s funeral at the Vatican. That is wrong. A private service would be more appropriate. Pope Francis could do more to heal still-open wounds by denying Law the pomp and circumstance he clearly loved this one last time.
The clerical sex abuse scandal was not limited to Boston. In New Jersey, former priest James Hanley became one of the state’s more notorious predator priests. There were others.
Eventually, the U.S. bishops took action, creating a protocol for dealing with such priests. But enforcement of those rules has been far from uniform, and until both clerics and prelates are subjected to the full weight of criminal law, there will be no justice for victims.
We are closer to that time. Bishops are no longer above the law.
But as for Law, he escaped the indignity of being led into a courtroom, of being charged with a crime. His public mea culpa rang hollow in 2002. The Vatican’s willingness to give him a plum assignment in Rome was another slap in the face of the victims Law could have saved if he had been a shepherd of the faithful rather than an enabler of the perverted.
Was he evil? That’s up to a higher authority to determine.
Was he a bad man? Yes.
Cardinal Bernard Law should not be buried as a prince of the church.