Cardinal Bernard Law, the former archbishop of Boston who left our city in disgrace amid the clergy child abuse scandal that was exposed by brave victims, attorneys, and reporters at the Boston Phoenix and the Boston Globe, died in Rome on Tuesday at age 86.
Law’s legacy is that of a villain who covered up the criminal acts of Catholic priests who preyed upon the most vulnerable people in Greater Boston, including Dorchester’s parishes. A 2003 report by Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly estimated that nearly 800 children had been abused by at least 237 priests of the Boston archdiocese over a period of six decades.
Law’s 19 years as Boston’s Catholic leader was a period of the most awful crimes and the cardinal himself was responsible for much of it. He re-assigned clerical child molesters, giving them further opportunities to victimize innocents and ruin lives.
Law was never held criminally culpable for his active role in enabling the crimes to continue; instead, he was disgraced and essentially exiled to live out his days comfortably and without penalty in the Vatican, where he remained one of the most powerful men in his church.
For Catholics like this writer, his death presents a tough ethical quandary. Our faith teaches us to forgive those who fail, to resist the human urge to condemn and pass judgment, and to pray for the souls of the departed that they may find eternal rest and peace with God in the after-life.
Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, who has worked very hard, if imperfectly, to prevent further injury and to heal the deep wounds left by decades of church-sponsored depravity, embraced that conflict in his reaction to Law’s death, which included another apology to victims.
“In the Catholic tradition, the Mass of Christian Burial is the moment in which we all recognize our mortality, when we acknowledge that we all strive for holiness in a journey which can be marked by failures large and small,” O’Malley wrote.
Law’s failures were so consequential, so harmful to children, and to the church itself that the gift of forgiveness will be a bridge too far for many of us. But our faith— for those who do believe— will prompt many of us to try. There is no shame in that. A person can arrive at a spiritual form of forgiveness without succumbing to the sins of an apologist or choosing to forget the lessons of the sins themselves.
We recall from our own archives the day in 1984 when Law arrived in Boston to begin his duties. St. Ambrose in Fields Corner had been destroyed in a fire that week. As the Reporter’s Ed Forry recalled, Law came directly to Dorchester to survey the ruins, console the parishioners, and offer a pledge to rebuild.
“It was an electrifying moment,” Forry later wrote in the Reporter. “The visit lasted no more than 30 minutes, and there was a sense that this dynamic new bishop would soon chart a promising new course for his flock in the Boston Archdiocese.”
St. Ambrose did rise from the ashes. The new Fields Corner church has become an important and valued institution, just as our remaining parishes and schools remain vital and valued parts of our community.
The bitter irony of the Law period in Boston is that the survival of our faith and church community in Dorchester has been realized not because of his leadership, but in spite of his abject failure to lead.
We hope and expect that Law’s death will serve as a reminder that we must be always vigilant against a repeat of the sordid and chilling past that unfolded in our midst.