The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


Scandal eclipses a far-reaching record

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 12/14/2002

Once, Bernard Francis Law was among the Catholic Church's mightiest princes.

In 1984 he swept into Boston, one of America's most populous and prominent Catholic sees, full of hope and promise. Everyone knew the bishop would become a cardinal; some saw in him a possible pope.

But Law's legacy is now in tatters: He will probably be forever tarred as the man who chose repeatedly to keep in ministry priests who had sexually molested children and adolescents, priests who had traded drugs for sex, fathered children, and abused women.

''Whatever good things he has done, he will be remembered for this,'' said Martin E. Marty, a professor emeritus of the University of Chicago Divinity School and a leading scholar of modern Christianity.

Today, it is hard to remember that Law was at the peak of his influence just a year ago, respected, if not always loved, with easy access to the halls of power in Boston, Washington, and Rome. He was the spiritual leader of 2 million Catholics in eastern Massachusetts; a kingmaker among American bishops; a leading champion of Jewish-Catholic relations; a forceful opponent of abortion, capital punishment, and euthanasia; an advocate for affordable housing; a thoughtful voice on foreign affairs.

He was often regarded as being more popular in the Vatican than among American bishops, who in 1986 rejected his candidacy to lead their organization, which was then called the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. He seemed to be more popular in Latin America, where he was born and where he invested considerable energy offering political and economic assistance, than in the United States.

But his connections to Rome gave him extraordinary power in the church in the United States. He was able to win posts heading other dioceses for many of the men who had served as his assistants, and he helped with other appointments through his post on the Vatican's Congregation for Bishops.

''There is no question that he was the most influential bishop, with regard to Rome, in the American hierarchy,'' said the Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame. ''In Rome, no American bishop had higher standing, greater influence, or clout.''

But despite a lifetime trying to prevent scandal from harming the church, Law's mishandling of sexually abusive priests triggered a scandal of a scale never before seen in the history of Catholicism in the United States.

Its short-term impact can be seen in reduced attendance at Mass, reduced contributions to collections, and reduced influence of bishops generally. The long-term impact will unfold over years, but the scandal has forced to the fore a variety of difficult issues - authority, gender, sexuality - that the church has in the past tried to avoid discussing.

''This has been crippling for the influence of the bishops,'' Marty said. ''When they took a public position on Iraq, people didn't pay attention, and the next time they speak up on sexual matters, they're total losers. They did represent a voice that ran counter to an anything-goes culture, but who among them would dare say anything now?''

To victims of abuse, the whole question of Law's legacy seems irrelevant.

''The other stuff he's done, however positive, is much more typical,'' said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. ''You could name a dozen bishops over the years who have done great things with ecumenical relations and affordable housing. But I think this scar on his record just won't fade over time, in part because it has sparked a long overdue, nationwide reexamination of this issue.''

Even Law's spokeswoman, Donna M. Morrissey, refused to talk about his legacy yesterday, saying that it was more important to focus on the issue of child protection.

Peter G. Meade, vice chairman of Catholic Charities of Boston, said: ''For the cardinal, it's like Bill Clinton. He will be forever remembered for this scandal. His work with immigrants, his outreach to the Jewish community, his commitment for the poor in Central and South America - it's tragic that all of that will be forgotten.''

But over the course of 18 years here, Law had forged an extraordinarily close relationship with Greater Boston's Jewish community and been a leader on a host of social and religious issues.

He had also built close friendships with Republicans, especially former president George H.W. Bush, with whom he said he spoke monthly. He enjoyed easy access to political and corporate power brokers, locally and nationally. The current president, George W. Bush, came to his defense in the middle of the current crisis, saying in March, ''I know Cardinal Law to be a man of integrity.''

But Law alienated many groups, particularly advocates of a greater role for women in the church and for greater acceptance of gays and lesbians. Even many of his fans sometimes found his manner distant or imperious.

''Law got off to a strong start, as he spoke Spanish and was comfortable with white Irish power brokers and Haitian parishioners in Dorchester,'' recalled Jim McManus, a Boston lawyer who in 1984 covered Law's arrival in Boston as a reporter for the National Catholic reporter.

''But he was never a warm, genuine, pastoral presence here like a Bernardin or even an O'Connor,'' McManus said, alluding to the late Cardinals Joseph L. Bernardin of Chicago and John J. O'Connor of New York. ''He made too many moves designed to ingratiate himself with the Curia, on issues such as theological orthodoxy at universities.''

Among priests, he also had a mixed reputation. Law could be unusually attentive to priests' personal needs, always endeavoring to visit those who were ailing in the hospital, often available to celebrate a funeral Mass for a priest or his relatives. But he also could be authoritarian, occasionally ousting pastors whose views he considered too liberal.

He presided over a church whose membership and priesthood were in decline. Over the years, he was forced to close or merge more than 40 parishes.

His annual fund-raising, about $18 million for the cardinal's appeal, was not huge, but he embarked last year on an ambitious $300 million capital campaign, with the goal of providing more money for Catholic education, health, and human services programs. The campaign has struggled in the face of the economic downturn and the sexual abuse scandal.

Law invested considerable personal capital in ecumenical and interfaith relations, and he was highly regarded by leaders of the Jewish community. He forged a close friendship with Leonard P. Zakim, who until his death in 1999 was the longtime executive director of the Anti-Defamation League's New England Regional Office.

''Cardinal Law was deeply committed to deepening the understanding between Catholics and Jews and worked tirelessly toward this goal,'' said Nancy K. Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, who in 1996 traveled with Law to Mississippi and Tennessee to offer support for African-American Protestant congregations whose churches were torched by arsonists.

''From his trip to Auschwitz in the late '80s to his dedication of a Holocaust Menorah at St. John's Seminary in September, he never backed away from urging us all to remember the past and use it as a guide to building a better future,'' Kaufman said.

Rabbi Samuel Chiel, the emeritus rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Newton, recalls leading with Law a Catholic-Jewish pilgrimage to Rome and Jerusalem in 1999. Law persuaded the pope to bless the dying Zakim during that trip.

''He was very relaxed on that trip,'' Chiel said. ''He is a very dignified sort of person, but when we are together, he has a great sense of humor, and he is very warm and welcoming.''

Law was clearly concerned about using his powerful post to prevent flare-ups of interreligious strife. Just last year, when Episcopal bishops in Massachusetts caused a stir by protesting for Palestinian rights outside the Israeli consulate in Boston, Law offered to help broker talks, and he pulled together an unprecedentedly broad group of interreligious leaders to condemn hate crimes after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

He was outspoken on foreign affairs, frequently expressing his opinion on the crises in Northern Ireland, Central America, and the Middle East, even before he was chosen by his fellow bishops to lead their committee on international policy.

Law also devoted considerable energy to the antiabortion movement, as part of his work against what the pope has deemed ''a culture of death.'' In 1984, during his first appearance at Boston's Cathedral of the Holy Cross, Law referred to abortion as the ''primordial evil of our day.'' He appeared annually at the March for Life in Washington, D.C., and the Respect Life March in Boston, as well as heading a bishops' committee on abortion issues.

But Law also took some unexpected steps to reduce the acrimony between supporters and opponents of abortion rights. Most notably, he called for a moratorium on protests outside abortion clinics after John C. Salvi III opened fire at two Brookline women's clinics, killing two receptionists, in 1994. He then gave the green light to an extraordinary 51/2-year dialogue among six Massachusetts women, three of them leading abortion opponents and three leading supporters of abortion rights.

''On the day of the shooting, most of the prolife leadership went immediately to his residence, and as we gathered there he led the group in prayer for the people who died,'' recalled Frances X. Hogan, a Boston lawyer who serves as the president of Women Affirming Life and as a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

''And then he called for the moratorium on clinic protests, which was not popular with a lot of people within the prolife movement,'' Hogan said. ''He kept us centered, and he was extremely supportive of our efforts to tone down the rhetoric, so we could talk to each other in a civilized way.''

He had minimal effect on public policy. In 1986, voters rejected a measure he strongly supported to limit state funding of abortion. He repeatedly criticized Catholic public officials who support abortion rights, blasting vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, and then chastising such public officials in numerous speeches, including his homily in 2000 at the funeral of his closest church ally, Cardinal O'Connor of New York. And yet, year after year the state's overwhelmingly Catholic electorate has chosen Catholics who support abortion rights to represent them.

But Hogan believes Law had an impact by keeping abortion in the public eye. ''A lot of people thought that this issue would go away after a certain amount of time passed,'' Hogan said. ''I credit him with providing national leadership to keep this issue alive. He really was a tremendous leader on this issue.''

He also spoke out on a variety of other public policy issues, especially opposing the death penalty and supporting affordable housing.

''He had a very strong concern about the death penalty, and his presence, or that of his bishops, at hearings was pretty extraordinary,'' said Senator Marian Walsh, a West Roxbury Democrat. ''A lot of people appreciated and expected the cardinal's involvement on certain issues. There were various levels of agreement, but it was respected.''

Law was not known to the public for his personal skills, and in person he could be aloof. But he could also be warm and gracious, especially when sickness or death were involved.

''I remember when my mother died, he picked up the phone, and I have heard a number of people say the same thing about that kind of sensitivity,'' said Rev. Diane C. Kessler, the executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches. ''That sort of thing builds good relationships.''

Sean Murphy, a Globe reporter, recalls running into Law, whom he did not know, in an elevator at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in 1993. The cardinal asked Murphy why he was there. When Murphy said he was visiting his brother, Kean, who was dying of AIDS, the cardinal insisted on visiting the 31-year-old twice that night and then returned on his own to visit him several more times.

''I was really amazed. He prayed with him, he asked about his family, and he asked to spend a little time alone with him,'' Murphy said. ''He was gentle, warm, and concerned. He was right down on the street level.''

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 12/14/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

For complete coverage of the priest abuse scandal, go to