Sex Abuse Victim Reflects on Meeting Law As Scandal Erupted
By Paul Leighton
December 21, 2017
In the summer of 2002, Bernie McDaid and his mother met with Cardinal Bernard Law in the Archdiocese of Boston's mansion in Brighton.
It was in the early stages of revelations that hundreds of children, including McDaid, a former altar boy at St. James Church in Salem, had been sexually abused by priests in the Boston area.
Law agreed to meet with McDaid and his mother to personally apologize. At the time, the stories of abuse had mostly come out of Boston, and McDaid asked Law why the problem was so prevalent in this area.
"He bowed his head like a puppy dog, looked at the floor and looked back up to me and said, 'I wish it was just Boston,'" McDaid recalled. "That was a very telling moment in my life. One of the heads of the Catholic church is basically telling you they're raping and molesting children all over the world."
McDaid recalled that story on Thursday morning as Law's funeral was being held at St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City. Law's death, at age 86 on Wednesday, has sparked emotional reactions among victims of clergy abuse, including anger at Law for his role in covering up the problem and moving abusive priests from parish to parish.
McDaid, now 61, said that while Law deserves blame, there are many others who share responsibility for the scandal and the tragic outcomes for many of the victims and their families.
"I'm not sticking up for Bernie Law, but he did apologize," McDaid said. "He was absolutely wrong and he knew it. But he represents hundreds of cardinals who were moving priests around. To make Bernie Law the scapegoat kind of shortens the issue to Boston. This is all over the world."
McDaid said Law wrote a letter of apology to him, then agreed to the meeting in Brighton to apologize to McDaid's mother, who was very religious.
"I felt he wasn't fake in his sincerity in being sorry," McDaid said. "It was a little too late for people. I can fully understand and appreciate that."
McDaid was one of the first victims of clergy abuse to come forward publicly, opening the door for hundreds of other victims to follow. In 2002, he joined a lawsuit against Law and other church officials alleging that he and dozens of boys were abused by the late Rev. Joseph Birmingham, a serial pedophile who served at St. James Church in Salem in the late 1960s, and later as pastor at St. Ann Church in Gloucester in the 1980s.
Gloucester-rooted filmmakers Joe Cultrera and Henry Ferrini made an award-winning film, "Hand of God," about Cultrera's brother, Paul, one of Birmingham's victims while the priest was stationed at St. James in the 1960s. Paul Cultrera lived in Gloucester in the '80s, ironically while Birmingham was at St. Ann's in Gloucester, his fifth assignment.
McDaid became a high-profile leader among survivors. He co-founded the Survivors Voice website, made two trips to the Vatican and, along with a handful of other victims, secretly met with Pope Benedict XVI in 2008 in Washington, D.C.
McDaid recalled a meeting in Lowell that he helped organize for about 30 victims and family members to meet with Law. While McDaid chaired the meeting, his sister took notes.
McDaid was standing next to Law when a young woman, whose brother was abused by a priest and eventually took his own life, stood up to address Law.
"She said to him, 'I want you to know that you killed my brother,'" McDaid said. "He looked down at the floor. He wouldn't look her in the eye, and she screamed at him, 'Look me in the eye. You're a murderer.' When you hear something like that, it really gets to you because, yes, this is murder. People ended up dying. It really brought this whole thing to a head for me."
In 2010, on his second trip to the Vatican, McDaid said he called Law, who was then the head priest of the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome.
"He hung up on me," McDaid said. "I'm pretty sure it was him. He spoke in English and quickly switched over to Italian."
A list of accused priests eventually released by the Archdiocese of Boston in 2011 revealed the names of 40 clergy who served on the North Shore, including in Salem, Peabody, Beverly, Danvers, Ipswich, Marblehead and other area communities.
McDaid said he endured personal and financial hardships, including a divorce, due to the abuse that he suffered. He now lives in Lynn and works as a painting contractor.
McDaid said he had pretty much put Law out of his mind until news of his death came this week.
"Certainly Bernie Law has to stand in history now for what he did and no one's going to forget that," McDaid said. "But it's not just Bernie Law. He's a focal point of what happened, but really he's one of many."
Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or firstname.lastname@example.org