The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


Cardinal begs abuse victims' forgiveness

A contrite Law says decisions led to 'suffering'

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 11/4/2002

An emotional Cardinal Bernard F. Law, at times choking up as he spoke, yesterday acknowledged for the first time that he could have prevented children from being abused.

Standing alone in front of the altar at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, cloaked in the green vestments of the liturgical season, Law offered the most detailed apology he has given during the 10-month-long clergy sex abuse crisis that has roiled his church and tarnished his reputation. He begged for forgiveness from victims and their families, and acknowledged that until the crisis exploded in January, he had not fully understood how damaging sexual abuse by priests was to children.

''I did assign priests who had committed sexual abuse,'' he said in the most direct and personal language he has used to date to describe his role in the sex abuse crisis. ''...The forgiving love of God gives me the courage to beg forgiveness of those who have suffered because of what I did.''

''Once again, I want to acknowledge publicly my responsibility for decisions which I now see were clearly wrong,'' he said. ''...I acknowledge my own responsibility for decisions which led to intense suffering. While that suffering was never intended, it could have been avoided, had I acted differently.''

Although he has apologized repeatedly since January, yesterday's speech was longer, more emotional, more detailed, and the first to come in direct response to a request by victims.

Even the visual symbolism of the choreography of Law's remarks was different. Whereas in the past, when speaking on abuse at the cathedral, Law has stood at his episcopal throne or behind the pulpit, yesterday he walked forward into the middle of the sanctuary, in front of the altar, and directly faced the assembly as he spoke. At one point, Law seemed to choke up, and some observers thought his eyes welled with tears, as he read from the remarks he had prepared.

Speaking at the start of Mass, to a sparse crowd of about 100 and an unseen audience on Boston Catholic Television, Law turned his back on the church's long history of trying to keep the fact and scope of sexual abuse secret by signing confidentiality agreements, invoking the seal of the confessional, refusing to study the phenomenon, and urging those affected by abuse to keep quiet to prevent scandal.

''I urge all those who live with the awful secret of sexual abuse, by clergy or by anyone else, to come forward so that you may begin to experience healing,'' he said. ''Anyone with knowledge about past abuse should make this information available to appropriate public authorities.''

He repeated his next sentence twice, apparently for emphasis: ''No one is helped by keeping such things secret.''

''The secret of sexual abuse needs to be brought out of the darkness, and into the healing light of Christ Jesus,'' he said.

Law, who celebrates his 71st birthday today, over the last several weeks has begun reaching out to the public, after months of relative silence.

He said he decided to speak out again on sexual abuse in response to a request by a group of alleged victims of the late Rev. Joseph A. Birmingham, an archdiocesan priest who is accused in civil lawsuits of molesting more than 50 boys over three decades at six local parishes and as chaplain of a juvenile court. Law drove up to a Dracut church on Tuesday to meet privately with a support group of Birmingham victims, and they asked him to speak publicly again.

Law said the Dracut meeting, ''although difficult and painful at times, was truly an occasion of grace for me,'' and he said his remarks yesterday were ''a sincere attempt to honor the spirit of our meeting.'' He said the victims had asked him to address ''more publicly and frequently'' several issues associated with clergy sex abuse, and that he now plans to do that.

''It almost seems like an eternity away, yet it was in January of this year that the crisis of sexual abuse of children by clergy began to dominate our consciousness,'' he said. ''Ten months later, I stand before you with a far deeper awareness of this terrible evil than I had at that time.''

Yesterday's remarks also demonstrated an evolution in the language Law is using to characterize his role in the Archdiocese of Boston's repeated failure to remove abusive priests from ministry, at times despite complaints from victims, parents, priests, or nuns.

At the beginning of this year, Law often described his role in the crisis by using tortured syntax and passive language that seemed to dodge the question of his personal responsibility. On Jan. 9, for example, he responded to criticism of his handling of the case of the Rev. John J. Geoghan by saying ''that some should criticize my earlier decisions I can easily understand,'' and ''judgments were made regarding the assignment of John Geoghan which, in retrospect, were tragically incorrect.''

Law said that his meetings with victims, which have increased in frequency in recent weeks, have educated him about the impact of sexual abuse, which, he said, can lead to alcohol and drug abuse, depression, problems with relationships, and suicide. An aide said that the number of victims seeking to meet with Law has been increasing, as word of his meetings with victims gets out.

''There is inevitably a ripple effect from this evil act [abuse] which spreads out and touches the lives of all of us,'' Law said. ''Clearly, these evil acts have touched our life together as an archdiocese. Our relationships have been damaged. Trust has been broken.''

The remarks were greeted with a variety of reactions by those inside and outside the cathedral.

Inside, parishioners seemed to welcome the cardinal's apparent contrition.

''I believe he is repentant over the decisions he made, and I applaud him for owning up to his faults,'' said Cecilia Beasley of Boston. ''Nobody is perfect, and sometimes you try to do the right thing and it doesn't turn out right.''

Outside, where several dozen protesters held signs around the Cathedral and shouted at the cardinal as he arrived and departed, demonstrators were unhappy. One demanded through a bullhorn that Law come outside to apologize to the protesters.

''It's too little, too late,'' said Ruth Moore of Hull, holding a sign saying ''Go Directly to Jail.''

''He apologized, and he wants forgiveness, and I think that's appropriate,'' she said. ''When he's in jail, I will truly forgive him, but he's got to pay.''

Ann Hagan Webb of Wellesley, who says she is a victim of abuse by a priest, was also skeptical. ''I was pleased that he took some responsibility for passing priests around ... but ignoring the welfare of children is an unforgivable act, and he should know that,'' she said. ''His actions are always much louder than his words.''

Barbara Thorp, the cardinal's victim outreach coordinator, said such mixed reactions are to be expected.

''Victims need to tell us if this makes a difference,'' she said, noting that some victims had called her to say they had seen the cardinal's remarks on television and appreciated what he said. ''This is a long road, and there are many steps. The church is committed to following that road.''

Michael Paulson can be reached by e-mail at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 11/4/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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