Cardinal Law’s Fall from Grace

Posted by Censor Librorum on Dec 31, 2017 | Categories: Accountability, Arts & Letters, Bishops, History, Musings, Politics, Scandals

On December 20, 2017,  Bernard Cardinal Law passed away at the age of 86.  For the last 13 years he lived in Rome, a voluntary exile from the United States.  He will be buried in Rome as well.

Law was appointed Archbishop of Boston in 1984, and he stepped down on December 13, 2002 after being engulfed and overwhelmed by the sex abuse scandal he helped to create.

Although Thomas O’Connor, Boston College historian, remarked “There’s going to be a lot of good interred with his bones,” the more likely epitaph will be that penned by Kevin Cullen of The Boston Globe: “Bernie Law … one of the greatest enablers of sexual abuse in the history of the world.”

Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington, VT, who served as Law’s spokesman during the period before the cardinal’s resignation, said in a statement on his death that like each one of us, Law’s days had their fair share of “light and shadows.” “While I knew him to be a man of faith, a kind man and good friend, I respect that some will feel otherwise, and so I especially ask them to join me in prayer and work for the healing and renewal of our Church,” he said.

Sean Cardinal O’Malley, archbishop of Boston and Law’s immediate successor, also published a statement on December 20th, offering his sincere apologies to anyone who experienced the trauma of sexual abuse by clergy.  “As Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Law served at a time when the Church failed seriously in its responsibilities to provide pastoral care for her people, and with tragic outcomes failed to care for the children of our parish communities. I deeply regret that reality and its consequences.”

But O’Malley also noted that Cardinal Law’s “pastoral legacy has many other dimensions,” including his early commitment to the civil rights struggle in Mississippi, and his work with the ecumenical and interfaith movement following Vatican II.  He was well known for his ministry to the sick, dying and bereaved.

Journalist Mike Barnicle wrote about Cardinal Law in a NY Daily News column published on Sunday, December 15, 2002 — two days after his resignation.  The headline was “The tragedy of Law’s fall from grace.” I clipped out the article from the paper to keep; to remind me of the good and evil one person can do, our complexities of character and motivation, and the nightmare forms our justifications can sometimes become.

The article began – “There was a night in December almost exactly four years ago when the door to the hospital room opened and Bernard Cardinal Law walked in to visit a sick man lying in the bed. The priest barely knew the guy, just dropped by to talk for a few minutes, offer a simple blessing and then he was gone, like a doctor on his rounds.

The guy was surprised. He hadn’t really known the cardinal and thought of him as a rather aloof, somewhat cold figure. But Law was accompanied that evening by some warmth, a sense of humor and a capacity for conversation.

“He comes here a lot,” one of the nurses said. “Just shows up. Him and his driver. A lot of the time, late at night. He’s great with the homeless, the drunks, street people who hang around the emergency room to get out of the cold.”

How does a man who was arguably the single most important  member of the Catholic hierarchy in America, a guy who made his bones working for civil rights in the South during the violent ’60s, a priest who began his career speaking for the poor, slowly but surely tumble into such scandal that his life is now littered with subpoenas rather than psalms?  Is it arrogance? Isolation? The sin of pride? Blind ambition? 

Last week, days before Law sat down with the Pope and resigned as leader of the Boston Archdiocese, whatever future he may have had within the church was mortally wounded by the artillery of conscience.  The volleys came in the form of 58 of his own priests who signed a letter urging him to step down and get out of town.  It was more powerful than any editorial clamoring for his resignation.  Now, control and contain–the creed of corporate Catholicism in America–is reeling.  The faithful are taking back the store.

Still, it is astounding to consider what has happened and what might happen yet.

Law, Rockville Centre, L. I., Bishop William Murphy, Brooklyn Bishop Thomas Daily and many other men who spent most of their lives spreading a gospel of truth and morality actively engaged in a decades-long coverup of priests who preyed on the helpless and the young and then paid out millions in hush money. They have made it possible for every Catholic bashing bigot in the country to find both a voice and an audience. They have made it nearly impossible for parents to lecture their children on the need to attend Mass, go to confession, pay attention to a homily.

In Boston, the cardinal was like a fugitive, running from the secular law, barely able to appear at a cathedral without attracting angry protesters, fleeing his home for Rome to meet with other old men who seem to want to blame this scandal on American culture.

In New York, Edward Cardinal Egan is practically invisible and mute, his voice silenced by the burden of his own bureaucratic mistakes. What went wrong with these guys? Did they ever listen to the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, who spoke out about the problem of child-molesting priests nearly 20 years ago?

Law did an awful lot of good in his life. His tragedy, though, is that when it mattered most, he lied. He lied to his strongest supporters, lay people, who urged him to come clean with every problem priest still on the books. He lied to the people in his diocese when he repeatedly across the years told them that his priest had been removed or that priest would not be allowed to work around children. He lied to other pastors around the country when he would write letters that read like great college recommendations on behalf of men he knew to be sodomists of the young and vulnerable.  Maybe he was lying to himself, too.

Now, in the wake of his departure, he leaves the Catholic Church in this country looking like a religious version of the San Andreas fault.  The fissure between the faithful and the hierarchy–the Pope in Rome and a whole lot of bishops here–is obvious. The shadowy outline of a separate and distinct American Catholic Church is no longer impossible to see. There will be people in parish after parish seeking equal time after each sermon they hear that they feel is foolish and delivered by some remote priest, automatically obedient to an authority that has been compromised and shamed by scandal that could have been avoided if just one man in a red hat had realized there is a huge difference between human weakness–a mistake–and a felony.

Law is history now, in more ways than one. He has been weakened, battered, defeated and made old by his own blindness and inaction.

He looks and behaves a lot differently today than he did that long ago night in December 1998 when he was full of humor, even humility, and took the time to bless a sick man in a hospital bed. I remember him well from that evening because I was the guy he took the time to bless.”

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2 Responses to “Cardinal Law’s Fall from Grace”

  1. Póló Says:

    Happy New Year to you and all your readers.

    As far as Bernard Law is concerned:

    http://dominusvobiscuit.blogspot.ie/2012/10/pro-bono-publico.html

  2. Karen Says:

    Dear Polo – Happy New Year to you! The Church never fails in providing loads of material–comic, hopeful or horrifying–so I expect 2018 will see a lot of interesting posts on both our blogs. Best wishes always – Karen

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