The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


Quietly, cardinal back in public eye

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 11/3/2002

In February, when Cardinal Bernard F. Law met with archdiocesan priests, he tried to keep the locations secret and forbade his spokeswoman from offering any description of the gatherings' purpose or content.

Ten days ago, when Law again met with priests, his spokeswoman announced the locations and the cardinal jocularly fielded questions from the news media outside.

In March, when Thomas Blanchette rang Law's doorbell in Brighton, taking the cardinal up on his reported willingness to meet with alleged victims of abuse, an aide said Law wasn't home and promised a call that didn't come for six months.

On Tuesday, Law got into his car and rode to Dracut to meet with Blanchette and dozens of others who say they or their loved ones were molested by an archdiocesan priest.

The list of changes goes on. Law's posture toward the major lay group formed in response to the sex abuse crisis, Voice of the Faithful, has gone from hostile to cautiously open, and his comments about the priests' group strengthened by the crisis, the Boston Priests' Forum, have gone from critical to conciliatory.

After nearly 10 months of ducking public appearances, failing to answer letters and calls, entering buildings through side doors, and seeming to disappear for days, Law over the last few weeks has haltingly reemerged into the public glare.

And after months of apologies that never seemed to sink in, over the last two weeks he has added a degree of human contact that has made his familiar expressions of sorrow and humility seem, to the unhappy priests, angry victims, and restive laypeople he has met with, more believable.

Although his legal posture remains tough, his public posture seems to be softening: Today, he plans to apologize again, from the pulpit at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, in response to a request from the victims he met with last week.

"Up until recently, he's been something of a recluse, appearing only before audiences that he knew would be warm to him -- I can't remember an appearance before any group that would have been at all critical, or even neutral," said Thomas H. O'Connor, emeritus professor of history at Boston College and the author of "Boston Catholics." "But over the past couple of weeks, he seems to be slowly emerging in a series of choreographed steps, trying to see if the atmosphere has changed any and making what seem to be some tentative outreaches."

Law's reemergence into the limelight seemed to begin about a month ago, when the cardinal showed up at the Oct. 4 dedication of the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge, sitting patiently as Bruce Springsteen told a story about meeting the pope. In some ways, the appearance was unremarkable -- Law was close with Zakim, who was the executive director of the Anti-Defamation League of New England -- but after Law canceled all his graduation speeches last spring and turned down an honorary degree for fear of being a distraction, the appearance reflected a new level of comfort that the cardinal could show up in public without attracting a horde of hecklers.

Four days after the bridge dedication, Law held a special Mass for striking janitors at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. Again, such an event would not have been unusual a year ago, but Law's once loud voice on public policy had almost entirely disappeared after the clergy sex abuse scandal. For him to weigh in on a labor dispute took on new significance.

In the weeks since, there have been other signs of returning normalcy -- on Oct. 18, for example, when the Vatican expressed reservations about a national clergy sex abuse policy, Law held his first news conference since Jan. 24. He has made other measured steps to resume some level of interaction with the news media. He sought out a reporter, who had been brushed off by one of his aides at the Mass for janitors, so he could offer comment on the labor dispute. And his office offered interviews with the cardinal to reporters writing obituaries of a prominent Vietnamese cardinal who died in September.

Law's spokeswoman, Donna M. Morrissey, acknowledges the change.

"We're in a lot different place today than we were earlier this year," she said. "Openness, and speaking publicly about what we're doing, hopefully will add to the healing process. We've made some sweeping policy changes, we have a broad-reaching education and prevention curriculum we're embarking on, and we have dramatically increased our outreach and support to victim-survivors. This isn't about public relations, it's about doing the right thing."

Law's increasing public visibility also seems designed to show that the cardinal has no intention of resigning.

In April, a Boston Globe/WBZ poll found 65 percent of local Catholics wanted him to quit, but Law has repeatedly said he is not going anywhere.

"He has made clear he's going to continue in his ministry, and that's what he's doing," Morrissey said.

That determination is increasingly accepted by people who have to work with the cardinal, even though all acknowledge it is impossible to predict what Law will do. Law will celebrate his 71st birthday tomorrow, and normal church rules would allow him to remain as archbishop for four more years, when, at the age of 75, he would be required to offer to retire.

"He was very clear to us that he was not going to resign," said the Rev. Robert W. Bullock, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Sharon and a leader of the Boston Priests' Forum. "He feels it is God's will for him to stay. That is a fact that we must deal with, and we must work together."

Law clearly has not yet weathered the storm.

Dozens of abuse cases are still being litigated, and some priests face criminal prosecution. The church's legal posture remains aggressive -- as does that of the victims' attorneys -- as the two sides attempt to settle more than 300 outstanding legal claims. The archdiocese has repeatedly been accused of being too slow in turning over documents in court cases, and last week a judge forced the release of a priest's psychiatric records by threatening heavy fines against the church.

The church's policy toward abusive priests remains a matter of public debate, as the Vatican insists that the US bishops revise the zero-tolerance measures they endorsed in Dallas in June.

At least a half-dozen books have been published on the church crisis, and several more are underway. And a commission appointed by the bishops is at work on a report that will attempt to explain what went wrong in the church, a study that is sure to examine Law's handling of abusive priests in Boston.

The church has suffered serious damage as a result of a loss of public confidence; priests say attendance at Mass and contributions to church coffers have dropped sharply.

"I don't think this is a storm that will all of a sudden go out to sea. He will forever be symbolic of this issue, rightly or wrongly, but people are expressing their disappointment in different ways," said Richard J. Santagati, president of Merrimack College, a Catholic college in North Andover. "I think you're seeing that manifest itself not necessarily with the cardinal, but in the parishes, where people are showing their mistrust by not supporting Catholic initiatives."

When the clergy sex abuse crisis exploded in January, Law at first adopted a very public posture, holding an immediate news conference to apologize for his handling of the case of John J. Geoghan, talking with reporters after Mass, and promising policy changes. But he slowly began to fade from view. On several occasions between March and August, he went on trips and his staff refused to say where he had gone.He arranged his travels so as to duck reporters, and he sent all pastors a letter announcing he was canceling his regular visits to parishes next year.

He also disappeared from the public debate, remaining largely silent on issues he once would have spoken out on, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a rise in violent crime in Boston, and an ongoing public discussion of the pros and cons of same-sex marriages.

Some observers believe only the most superficial elements of Law's conduct have changed.

"It's not that he's more accessible or open; he's got a little different public relations approach, but at the same time the claims of victims are not being settled and they're bringing in additional lawyers to litigate," said lawyer Carmen Durso, who said some of his clients, who are victims of abuse, have sought but not received meetings with Law. "Nothing's changed except that someone finally said `Do your public relations.' A zebra doesn't change his stripes, although he may get better press."

But many of those who have met with Law say, whatever his motivation, they are happy to finally be able to talk with him.

"These are the kinds of things the laity and the survivors have been looking for Cardinal Law to do, and when he does them, we have to encourage that, be grateful, and hope it can happen on a more routine basis," said Steve Krueger, executive director of Voice of the Faithful, who welcomed Law's meeting with victims and his promise to meet with the lay group.

Bullock, the leader of the priests' forum, says Law is not just showing up at events he would have shunned. His demeanor has changed as well.

"There are notable differences -- the meetings with priests were much more candid and detailed, and his responses to the priests were more comprehensive, attentive, and, I think, conciliatory," Bullock said. "I think he's reaching out for all the help he can get."

The alleged victims who have met with Law also welcome the opportunity to talk, even if only to tell him how upset they are about his past failure to remove abusive priests from ministry.

"I don't think he's trying to fake it," said Blanchette, whom Law refused to see in March but who won a 90-minute meeting with the cardinal in September thanks to Law's new victim-outreach coordinator, and who then saw the cardinal again at last week's Dracut meeting with a number of men who say they were victims of the late Rev. Joseph E. Birmingham. "When he was acting in an arrogant manner, he wasn't trying to shadow that. He was quite confrontational [in court depositions]. ... Now he's saying, `I beg you to forgive me.' I think that is significant."

Gary Bergeron, who, like Blanchette, says he was molested by Birmingham, urged Law to meet with a support group of Birmingham victims.

"It doesn't matter what his reason is, whether it's public relations or simply the right thing to do," he said. "The fact is, he's meeting with us."

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 11/3/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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