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Bernard Law Has Died

Bernard Law has died at 86. He will be remembered as a man who spent a significant portion of his career aiding and abetting the molestation of children. He deserves nothing more.

Law died as an official in the Catholic Church, after having been appointed as the Archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in 2004. It was a cushy landing for Law, all things considered. He had already been in Vatican City for several years before receiving the new position. He was there because he fled America in 2002. He fled after it was discovered that Law had known about, and routinely covered for, sexually predatory priests in and around Boston. He had been able to undertake this conspiracy while serving as Boston’s archbishop.

The conspiracy itself worked like this: whenever abusive priests were discovered, they were transferred into other communities, rather than turned over to authorities. Those communities were not warned about their new priest’s previously abusive behavior; victims were kept quiet by various means (guilt, threat, money). Among the priests that Law intentionally turned a blind eye toward was John Geoghan, arguably the most high-profile name in the American abuse scandal, a man accused of having abused more than 130 children during his career. Geoghan was later murdered in prison. Geoghan’s enabler walked free.

Law oversaw all of this, repeatedly refusing to turn over his list of abusive priests to local authorities, something he had almost two decades to do. He did this because he voluntarily chose to care more about protecting the Catholic Church from consequence than he did about protecting children from abuse. He made a daily choice to prioritize the one instead of the other.

The depth of Law’s depravity is almost impossible to fathom. When dealing with Peter Frost – a priest, Frost had been removed from active ministry in 1992; one of his victims later committed suicide – Law wrote the following:

“It is my hope that some day in the future you will return to an appropriate ministry, bringing with you the wisdom which emerges from difficult experience. In the mean time I want you to know that you and your family are in my prayers. I am especially sympathetic as you care for your mother. The Lord will give you a deep gratitude for the many opportunities you now have to show kindness to her.”

Law appears to have genuinely believed that Frost’s abusive behavior was an opportunity to make lemons out of lemonade. Law thought considerably less of Frost’s victims, whose abuse he repeatedly enabled through voluntarily undertaken (in)action. And of course, Law also blamed the victims themselves for his own behavior, arguing that his silence about the abuse was designed not to protect the institution from consequence, nor to protect himself from scrutiny, but to protect victims themselves. He had done it for them, we are meant to believe, because if he had talked about the abuse, people might have known.

Eventually, Law would generously take the time to tell victims that they were not to blame for their abuse; their perpetrators were to blame. It is unclear whether Law ever understood that he was one of the perpetrators, whether or not he ever actually put his hands on a child.

Law was never charged with conspiracy despite it being impossible to imagine a better word that would more accurately describes precisely what he spent a considerable portion of his life doing. He was never charged with anything else either. He wasn’t arrested. He wasn’t interrogated. The victims of the abuse suffered a lifetime’s worth of anguish as a result of those with power having done nothing to protect them. The church ended up paying out roughly $100,000,000 in settlements with victims.  Law suffered not even a little bit. That is extremely unfortunate; he deserved much, much worse.

There exists a cultural expectation not to speak ill of the dead. That is absurd. Bernard Law was a monster. He will not be missed.


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25 thoughts on “Bernard Law Has Died

      • A couple of interesting notes on this.

        The RCC, at least as far as U.S. law goes, is not a unified entity. It consists of a network of diosceses, which are formally nonprofit corporations organized according to the laws of various states, which in turn control more networks of multiple subordinate nonprofits that engage in a variety of different activities like running individual parishes, schools, and hospitals, and perhaps most importantly, managing the dioscese’s assets which typically consist of a lot of real estate as well as other kinds of holdings. So when you’re referring to “the Church,” a lawyer considering litigation against it needs to figure out which entities are holding the money and which entities engaged in culpable conduct and the degree to which the command and control maneuvered things within that network.

        Well, okay, I can hear you say, that’s precisely the sort of thing that RICO is intended to get at; that’s why it’s phrased as broadly as it is and why it aims at “enterprises” instead of entities. And obviously looking at the formalities of entity organization does not give us a complete picture of the RCC’s global hierarchy of control, which while large and complex, resembles nothing so much as a medieval kingdom divided into multiple duchies and counties.

        Second, specifically in the case of Cardinal Law’s manipulation of the apparatus of the Archdiocese of Boston and allied Dioceses, you need to include him in the charges. And a lot of civil litigators did exactly that. He was deposed several times by civil attorneys regarding his role in the cover-ups and that was almost certainly a big part of why Pope John Paul II decided to name him the Archpontifex of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Maria Major is a “high church,” meaning it is under direct papal control. The High Priest position there is largely ceremonial but performing the ceremonial duties does require his personal presence. Which gave ecclesiastical cover to Law absenting himself from the United States and taking up formal residence in Vatican City as a direct personal representative of that nation-state’s head of state. Thus removing him from susceptabilty to civil process.

        Bear in mind, that was JP2, not Benedict16, who did that. Saint John Paul II. And it was Pope Francis who canonized him, extending a blanket veneration of the Church on his life and deeds. Even after his retirement from active clerical life a little bit over six years ago, Law continued to live in Maria Major and the Vatican, enjoying both diplomatic immunity from international service of civil process and direct access to the Pope. Until the day of his death, he served as an advisor to Pope Francis, who presided over Law’s funeral mass earlier today. So there’s an unbroken if increasingly attenuated chain of ratification of Law from every global head of the RCC since the 1970’s.

        FWIW, Law’s successor as head of the Archdioscese of Boston has tried to put some distance between himself and Law’s unsavory actions, though he seems to be on his own and without a lot of support from Rome on that.

        So yeah, there’s plenty of evidence there and there’s been plenty of exploration of that. Here’s the real problem which is my third note back to you: civil RICO has a four-years-from-discovery-of-injury statute of limitations. Nearly all of Law’s victims were on constructive notice of their injuries immediately as the injuries happened (specifically, as they were raped by their priests). Under prevailing law at the time, limitations periods were likely deemed tolled until their age of majority, but by the time the Boston Globe opened up the floodgates on the extent of the conceal-and-abet scheme masterminded by Law, a lot of limitations periods had passed. Many states passed laws retroactvely extending or repealing limitations periods specifically to permit suits against RCC entities and personnel, but those are state law claims, not RICO.

        Those claims have tended to result in significant, if mostly confidential, settlements, and the occasional explosively large judgment; many controlling RCC entities have sought the protection of bankruptcy courts to reorganize their assets, resolve these liabilities, and continue their operations. These are among the most complex and capital-intensive bankruptcies in American legal history.

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    • The University fired Paterno (successful coach that he was). Paterno ran his program, made his own rules, I can easily believe the buck stopped with him. Anyone who duplicated his mistakes somewhere else did so without his help, every football program stands alone.

      The church stood by Law, whisked him out of the country, gave him a golden parachute in a safe country. The church acted, even under this new Pope, like Law was simply following standard church policy.

      So I wonder how many more like Law there are out there.

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  1. The conspiracy itself worked like this: whenever abusive priests were discovered, they were transferred into other communities, rather than turned over to authorities. Those communities were not warned about their new priest’s previously abusive behavior; victims were kept quiet by various means (guilt, threat, money).

    This is the utterly egregious part. If Law wanted to protect the Church he could have just moved those priests to a monastery or to some other role where they would not have contact with children. That would still be wrong, but I at least could have understood it. But to simply protect a child predator from consequences and offer them a safe hunting ground, just so your organisation doesn’t look bad, is unforgivable.

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  2. I don’t believe in hell, but at times I wish I did, because I’m not sure karma has sufficient tools to balance the scales for this one.

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  3. Basically the church took any moral authority they previously enjoyed — particularly on sexual issues — wiped their collective asses with it, and flushed it down the toilet. It’s a completely self-inflicted injury.

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  4. Monster yes, but not the worst of the monsters. Rotherham is at least on par, and maybe worse. I couldn’t find any stats on the number of kids abused in the Boston Archdiocese, but in Rotherham the authorities did NOTHING.

    I understand the desire to protect something you love and don’t want it harmed, but trust was betrayed. He knew about it, his actions didn’t fix it, and he took no action to prevent it once he realized that, only trying to cover it up. Moral authority now = 0.

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  5. I’ve thought before of the difference between Peter and Judas.

    They both betrayed Christ, both behaved shamefully, and yet, one went on to become the founder of the Church, the other the epitome of disgrace.
    It strikes me that the difference was in the different ways they handled their shame.

    One believed in the power of forgiveness and transcendence, but the other couldn’t see any path other than death.

    I may have written here before, about the priest I knew when I was a teenager, who was such a wonderfully thoughtful, and genuinely kind and loving man I flirted with the idea of following him into the priesthood.
    Years later, he was named in a sex scandal, resigned in disgrace, and died shortly after, from all accounts a broken man.

    I wanted to cry out then, and offer my testimony that whatever his crime and whatever pain he caused others, there was another side to him.
    The side that I saw was impeccably respectful of me, that made me view him as a safe and trusted adviser, someone of deep spirituality and grace.There was more to this man than just that one dark chapter.

    So I think of how ironic it is, that an institution founded by a man who was famous for his lack of faith and shameful behavior, an institution that counts confession and forgiveness as a sacrament, one whose sole purpose could be described as salvation of the broken, finds itself confused and incapable of confession of its own failing.

    The actions demonstrate a fear of accountability, a lack of faith in redemption. I think this is what is so shattering, even more than the acts themselves.

    I think everyone can identify with Peter vehemently denying knowing Jesus. If I were faced with torture and death, I know my behavior wouldn’t be much different. And I am well enough acquainted with myself to know that if I were locked in bonds of chastity, I would likely act out in ways that were awful.

    But if a church has any meaning or mission at all, it should be offering an example of how to handle broken people; to chart a path from brokenness to wholeness.

    Maybe especially in the #metoo era, when the curtain is pulled back to reveal how widespread our awful human behavior is, and how deep the need is to healing.

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      • The church I attend is growing old and gray.
        The young adult people I know- my son and stepdaughter and their friends- are entirely secular millennial “nones”.

        I can’t think of what to say to them. As a parent, its saddening to be unable to speak with authority, or offer guidance.

        They seem to be developing into fine people with deep moral principles, without the aid of a creed or church. Who can preach to them, and what they say in any event? As Dennis Miller cracked, when the priest slides back the panel he is tempted to say, “You first, pal.”

        Again, history never stands till, and the world we grew up in, and its institutions, is evolving into something else right in front of our eyes.

        The theologian Phyllis Tickle postulated that religions undergo massive upheavals every 500 years or so, and that we are in a new sort of Reformation right now.

        The upheavals are marked by the sort of collapse of faith that we are seeing right now, where the old institutions give way to some new definitions.

        I feel a bit like a European in the 1500s, seeing that something is happening but not able to see where it is leading or able to understand it.

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    • I understand and would generally applaud the notion that a person ought not to be defined by their worst moments. Like everyone else, I’ve made mistakes and think of myself as different than those mistakes, or at least more than them — I’ve also done good things, things I’d admire and praise in others.

      And it’s true that Bernard Law advocated for housing and health care for the poor. He deployed the assets of the Archdioscese of Boston to help make those things happen, and was a major force in encouraging his fellow Bishops in other Diosceses across the United States to do the same. These were, in fact, laudable deeds. It may even be the case that Law was a factor in making those kinds of deeds culturally expected of the RCC, which would be even more praiseworthy.

      In this case, though, the misdeeds were not a few bad moments. This was not one bad decision Law made without thought to the consequences. It was a conscious, thought-out strategy, sustained, repeated, reinforced, and directed by him over a long period of time. It is fair to say that it became a significant portion of his life’s work. He may have thought of it as “protecting the Church,” and we might even very charitably say that he suffered from the human frailty of not being able to see past “protecting the Church” to understand that his means of doing so hurt the weak and downtrodden, much less to see that he caused tremendous and lasting harm to the institution he sought to defend. I might grant that, but that also means that this is a fair subject upon which to define the man.

      It is not a noble legacy. It is very far from a noble legacy.

      We might define the legacy of a Millard Fillmore or a James Buchanan as “He failed to do anything to even try to prevent a Civil War which should have foreseen.” But if we’re talking about a civil war analogy, Law is more akin to Jefferson Davis than James Buchanan. And just as it’s fair to define Jeffson Davis’ memory with the shameful epitaph of “First and Only President of the Slaveholding Confederate States of America,” it is also fair to define Bernard Law’s memory with the shameful epitaph “Architect of the Roman Catholic Church concealing and abetting child rape.”

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    • it should be offering an example of how to handle broken people; to chart a path from brokenness to wholeness.

      I’ve two responses to this, first…

      Charitably, that’s what Law thought he was doing. The priest gets caught, confesses a problem, regrets what he did, asks for forgiveness, everyone prays about it and they start over again as though nothing has happened.

      Taking the wafer is a soul changing event, he’s been purified, everything is good again, the problem has been fixed.

      Although the tenth time Law needs to heal/forgive the same priest for doing the same heinous deeds, one would hope he sees the pattern and does something else, but maybe that’d be admitting the system doesn’t work.

      Many moral systems have problems with what to do with the existence of evil. More generally, many systems have problems with bad actors.

      Second…

      I suspect the Church’s response is the least painful way for them to handle this. They’ve lost their moral standing for 20 or 50 years, but time will pass, people will forgive, forget, or die, and the church will heal.

      Law could be the tip of a very large, very ugly iceberg. They CAN’T come clean about how many centuries this has been going on and how many people they’ve hurt. Explaining that Law was pretty average by Church standards, this happens everywhere, and he was just unlucky enough to be caught isn’t a conversation that goes well.

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