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Loyalty is not always approval

It is hard to find anything uplifting in the long and tragic era of James “Whitey” Bulger. At last now, there is closure. He is best forgotten, which is easy for the curious and uninvolved but far more difficult for the families of victims and his own relatives.

I recall sitting in the Drug Court session at Roxbury District Court many years ago and seeing a man much older than the drug-dependent defendants who appeared in the session weekly so that probation could report on their progress, or lack thereof. The purpose of Drug Court was to involve the judge on a continuing basis in the rehabilitation of defendants convicted of drug-related cases.

At the weekly session, each defendant was called before the judge and a probation officer described his or her performance during the previous week. The program required weekly urine screenings, detox, in and out-patient counseling, and the imposition of jail sentences on those not in compliance.

I inquired of a court officer about the older man who was sitting among the defendants and was told he was the father of one of them. He said the man had accompanied his son week after week, month after month to the Drug Court sessions.

He remained seated as his son was called to the bench and I received a report of another life ravaged by drugs. The young man had been in jail, in and out of drug programs, and once again was being closely monitored to see if there was any way the cycle of drug use and despair could be broken.

I could only imagine the pain and disappointment that his parents had suffered over the years at his repeated failure to get clean. Yet there was his father once again trying to be helpful, demonstrating by his presence his love for his son.

I called the father up to the bench and in front of his son told him how much I admired him. He refused, despite the pain and previous failures, to abandon his son. His love was constant, his loyalty undiminished regardless of what his son had done. Parental love is not earned by children; it is wired into the relationship.

What has that got to do with the Bulger case? I read that at the sentencing hearing the only family member present was his brother John “Jackie” Bulger and that he was there every day during the trial. While it is likely the entire Bulger family suffered through the trial at the sordid crimes attributed to the oldest brother, John, the youngest, suffered most.

The well-regarded retired clerk-magistrate of Boston Juvenile Court, John was sent to jail for perjury, for denying any contact with his brother when he was on the run. He also lost his pension. Rumor and allegations of guilt by association also damaged the reputation of William Bulger, the former state legislator and University of Massachusetts president. The press would have been all over the former senate president had he attended the trial, adding to the circus atmosphere.

Perhaps family members were in denial. Until the trial, they lived the legend of James rather than the reality of “Whitey” – misguided but understandable, given their fierce South Boston loyalty.

Should they have abandoned this most prodigal of sons? God loves sinners; should we expect less of the family. Love and loyalty do not necessarily mean approval. There remains some hope that the condemned man will seek redemption. Without the love of family, that chance is diminished.

The victims and their families deserve love, compassion, and understanding. Should there be a little left over, if not for the perpetrator, at least for his family. Like the father at Roxbury Court, John would not abandon his brother. There is good in that.

James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.