Support the Café
Search our site

Cardinal Law, who protected abusive priests, has died at age 86

Cardinal Law, who protected abusive priests, has died at age 86

The 2015 film “Spotlight” covers the scandal surrounding Cardinal Bernard Law, archbishop of Boston, who eventually resigned his position after investigations, instigated by the Boston Globe, revealed he had protected pedophile priests for years. In other areas of human rights, he had been a strong voice, controversial in a different way, says the New York Times:

He was ordained a priest in 1961 in the diocese of Natchez-Jackson, Miss. He served two years as a parish priest in Vicksburg, then became editor of The Mississippi Register, the diocesan newspaper in Jackson. He joined civil rights marches and editorialized against segregation and racial violence. He received death threats, and his newspaper lost many subscribers.

Contradictions, some more subtle, marked his personality, politics and theology:

…he became one of the nation’s most influential churchmen, a protégé and confidant of the pope, a friend of presidents, a force in politics who traveled widely, conferred with foreign leaders and nurtured Catholic relations with Protestants, Jews and others. Admirers thought he might become the first American pope.

His popularity was hardly universal. Some of his own clergymen called him arrogant and autocratic. To critics, and even to many Catholics who questioned church doctrines, he embodied the patriarchal, authoritarian ideologies of a hierarchy that rigidly opposed abortion, birth control, the ordination of women and changes in the traditional celibacy of an all-male priesthood.

In Boston — perhaps the emotional heart of the church in America, but a city with a history of racial troubles — Cardinal Law was a voice for tolerance, and became part of the city’s political and social fabric. His annual garden party drew leaders in government, business, the arts and society. In 2001, Boston magazine put him fourth on its “power list,” just behind Senator Edward M. Kennedy.

Law died this week at the age of 86 in Rome, where he has lived.

From the Washington Post:

Cardinal Law was never accused of committing sexual abuse, and he denounced the offense as a “terrible evil.” But for many Catholics as well as non-Catholics, he became a symbol of the church’s failure to protect the young from priests who exploited the trust that traditionally accompanies their role.

“While I would hope that it would be understood that I never intended to place a priest in a position where I felt he would be a risk to children,” Cardinal Law said in an apology in November 2002, “the fact of the matter remains that I did assign priests who had committed sexual abuse.”

From the Boston Globe:

The abuse scandal was “the greatest tragedy to befall children — ever” in the Commonwealth, the attorney general’s office said in 2003, and “as archbishop, and therefore chief executive of the archdiocese, Cardinal Bernard Law bears ultimate responsibility for the tragic treatment of children that occurred during his tenure. But by no means does he bear sole responsibility.”

The attorney general’s office said the abuse extended over six decades and involved at least 237 priests and 789 children; of those, 48 priests and other archdiocesan employees were alleged to have abused children while Law was leader of the Boston archdiocese.

The Archdiocese of Boston did not issue a statement Tuesday night.

His work in human rights is difficult to square with his neglect of sexual abuse. From the Post:

[Law’s] first assignment was in the Natchez-Jackson diocese in Mississippi. Amid boiling racial hatred, the young priest helped found and then led an interfaith council on human relations. A Unitarian minister who served with him was shot, according to the biographical sketch, and the home of a rabbi was bombed. Cardinal Law reportedly received death threats.

Later, in Washington, he joined the organization now known as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and led a committee on interreligious understanding. He served as bishop of Springfield-Cape Girardeau in Missouri before succeeding Humberto Medeiros as archbishop of Boston’s 2 million Catholics in 1984. The next year, he was elevated to cardinal, a prince of the church.

In Boston, Cardinal Law was credited with helping to ease race relations during the divisive court-ordered busing for public schools. He urged voters to make abortion, which the Catholic Church opposes, “the critical issue” in elections. Politically well-connected, he spoke as frequently as once a month with George H.W. Bush during his presidency, the Globe reported.

In international affairs, Cardinal Law became a visible envoy for the church. He met with Cuban leader Fidel Castro eight years before John Paul’s historic visit to the Communist country in 1998, traveled to Vietnam, and led humanitarian relief efforts after natural disasters in Latin America.

From the Globe:

Cardinal Law encouraged interfaith relations. “For Cardinal Law, in the Jewish community, there is a reverence,” Harold Schwartz, a former chairman of the Anti-Defamation League, said in 2002. Zakim once said that an extemporaneous talk about the significance of the Auschwitz death camp that the cardinal gave to a group of Catholics in 1986 “was the best presentation about the Holocaust that I’ve ever heard from a non-Jew.”

An example of Cardinal Law’s sensitivity to the Jewish community was his urging a group of Polish Carmelite nuns (an aunt of the cardinal’s had been a Carmelite) to move their convent from its location on the Auschwitz grounds.

Poland was one of several countries Cardinal Law visited during his tenure. Others included Mexico, Nicaragua, and Cuba. Cardinal Law, who spoke fluent Spanish, visited the island nation five times and met with Fidel Castro on several occasions, once for more than four hours. Cardinal Law, Boston College religious historian Thomas Wangler said in 1990, was “the first archbishop of Boston to have a foreign policy.”

And some Catholics are less critical of his memory (from NYT):

“His piety, his prayer life, his love for the church was profound,” said R. Scott Appleby, a professor of Catholic history at the University of Notre Dame. “It was his very great strength and love for the church that ultimately kind of impaired his judgment about what was best for the church itself.”

Dislike (0)
Facebooktwitterpinterestlinkedinmail

Café Comments?

Our comment policy requires that you use your real first and last names and provide an email address (your email will not be published). Comments that use non-PG rated language, include personal attacks, that are not provable as fact or that we deem in any way to be counter to our mission of fostering respectful dialogue will not be posted.

newest oldest
Notify of
Dominic de Guzman
Guest
Dominic de Guzman

The Roman church's loss was the Episcopal church's gain. So many left the Roman church because of the arrogance and misplaced priorities of this man, and many ended up in the Episcopal church. But the cost........ the terrible cost...........

Like (0)
Dislike (0)
Support the Café
Past Posts

The Episcopal Café seeks to be an independent voice, reporting and reflecting on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition.  The Café is not a platform of advocacy, but it does aim to tell the story of the church from the perspective of Progressive Christianity.  Our collective sympathy, as the Café, lies with the project of widening the circle of inclusion within the church and empowering all the baptized for the role to which they have been called as followers of Christ.

The opinions expressed at the Café are those of individual contributors, and, unless otherwise noted, should not be interpreted as official statements of a parish, diocese or other organization. The art and articles that appear here remain the property of their creators.

All Content  © 2017 Episcopal Café