Bernard Law: A defining legacy of enabling widespread abuse

Here in Boston, holiday celebrations and observations have been harshly interrupted by news of the death of Cardinal Bernard Law, whose long-time leadership of the Archdiocese of Boston was defined by widespread cover-ups of sexual abuse of children committed by priests. As reported by Mark Feeney for the Boston Globe:

Cardinal Bernard F. Law, whose 19-year tenure as head of the Archdiocese of Boston ended in his resignation after it was revealed he had failed to remove sexually abusive priests from the ministry, setting off a scandal that reached around the world, died Tuesday. He was 86.

…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.”

Not surprisingly, Law’s death has reopened wounds (if they were healed at all) of many of the victims and their families. Especially due to Boston’s large Catholic population, the priest sexual abuse scandal is one of the most tragic and painful events in the city’s history.

On Wednesday, Globe columnist Kevin Cullen pulled no punches in describing Law’s true legacy:

Bernie Law — and that’s what I’ll call him, because he was no more special than you or I — was one of the greatest enablers of sexual abuse in the history of the world.

…And that’s how Bernie Law should be remembered. If only because it will serve as a grievous warning to others who may try to shroud themselves in good works and think their legacy will survive their complicity with nothing short of evil.

…Bernie Law presided over one of the worst networks of sexual abusers ever assembled. Thousands of children were raped and molested on his watch. Some of them killed themselves. Some were dead, in their souls, from the moment they were inappropriately touched by a priest. He sent the priests who raped and molested on to other parishes to do more of what they did, rather than call scandal to his church.

Bernard Law’s critical role in covering up the abuse and protecting both the archdiocese and the child predators on its payroll continues to raise profound moral and ethical questions about the social responsibilities of institutional leaders. By enabling, supporting, and protecting dozens of sexual abusers, with full knowledge of their behaviors, I posit that he was even more culpable than the individual predators. As such, his enormous failings remind us that interpersonal abuse within institutions rarely occurs in a vacuum. It is often made possible by organizational cultures stoked by those at the top.

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Related post

Lessons from “Spotlight” for combating interpersonal abuse (2017)

6 responses

  1. I forwarded your post to the Vatican with this note:

    The gates of hell will be directly underneath where Law is buried. Any Vatican ceremony and entombment next to others holy dishonors them, curses the ground and reinforces that rigid policy remains in place without regard for the feelings of victims.

  2. What I don’t get, is why this guy wasn’t
    Rotting in a Jail Cell at Fort Devens instead
    Of enjoying life in a lavish villa in Rome.
    How did that happen? Who protected this
    Guy? How was he protected? Why?
    Rhetorical questions all, I guess.
    And the saddest, most unjust part of
    All of this, is that it took The Boston Globe
    Spotlight team to document and uncover it.
    Meaning that the church itself would have
    Remained mute and done nothing.
    The movie won an Oscar, big deal.

  3. Bernard Cardinal Law could have shown insight not denial into what he was responsible for and the enormous harm he caused by planning a private funeral in the Church where he was last assigned. This would have been a last act of decency and in lieu of travel expenses by the Princes of the Churches he could have asked for donations to the the Child Abuse Fund as a graceful gesture to the children.
    Leaving the world gracefully and quietly not with a pompous departure may have helped the healing of those who were harmed.
    Like many abusers-the dynamic is they don’t get it.

  4. I had forgotten until I read the New York Times obituary that Law also instigated the “inquiry” into the actions of nuns that were advocating for peace, equality and social justice issues. It took Pope Francis to put an official end to that organizationally legitimated harassment.

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