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Church in Crisis

Ambition, defense of institutional church drove cardinal’s career


With the resignation of Boston Cardinal Bernard Law Dec. 13 following months of revelations about his failure to remove dozens of sexually abusive priests from ministry, the pope has lost a man who for a decade and a half was among the most influential Catholic power brokers in the United States. Since the death of New York’s Cardinal John O’Connor in 2000, Law has been the country’s senior prelate.

NCR’s reporting on Law, 71, and his rise through the ranks of the church extends back more than 35 years, revealing a defender of the institutional church and its teachings and a bishop of high ambition who consistently put a desire to protect the church from scandal ahead of the need to protect children from serial abusers.

Law, of Irish descent, was born in Torreon, Mexico, in 1931, the son of a U.S. Air Force flier who would rise to the rank of colonel. Law’s mother was raised a Presbyterian, but converted to Catholicism sometime in the 1950s. His childhood was divided between living in Mexico, Colombia, Georgia, New York and Florida. He graduated from Charlotte Amalie High School, a racially diverse school in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, where he was elected president of the senior class.

For college, he chose Harvard, and while studying medieval history there he considered a career in government. But, he told NCR in 1984, during those years he became absorbed with the idea of “the church as the mystical body of Christ, as unity as a force for bringing people together.”

At the Catholic Club at Harvard, he was impressed by such speakers as Dorothy Day, Jacques Maritain and Catherine de Hueck Doherty. After graduation in 1953, he decided to become a priest. Because, he said, he wanted to address racial inequities he had witnessed growing up in Latin America and elsewhere, he moved to the South.

After two years at St. Joseph’s Seminary in St. Benedict, La., he spent six years of study at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Worthington, Ohio. He was ordained for the Natchez-Jackson, Miss., diocese May 21, 1961, on Pentecost Sunday.

He served for less than two years at St. Paul Parish in Vicksburg, Miss., as an assistant pastor and then in 1963 became editor of the diocesan paper, the Mississippi Register, where he took an editorial stance in support of the civil rights movement. He served on the Mississippi Human Relations Council and Mississippi Leadership Conference. His position on civil rights met with the approval of his bishop, Richard Gerow, who had also publicly advocated for civil rights. Because the movement was so unpopular among many Catholics in Mississippi at that time, Law’s writings led to a significant decline in the number of subscribers of the newspaper.

In one editorial about the need for equality, Law wrote: “Until we realize that the dilemma facing us is a moral question, until we operate in the context of virtue in our social and political lives as well as our personal lives, the future will be even more dismal than the present.”

After Mississippi civil rights activist Medger Evers was assassinated in 1963, Law increased his civil rights activities. His participation at caucuses at black churches and meetings with black pastors in the chancery attracted the attention of the Ku Klux Klan. His name appeared on a Klan hit list. His efforts earned him the praise of Charles Evers, Medger’s brother and fellow rights activist, who in February 1966 told NCR: Law has acted “not for the Negro, but for justice and what is right.”

According to an April 22, 1990, Boston Globe report, Law told friends during his time in Mississippi that his goal was to be the first American pope.

Law’s activism allowed him to develop ties to Protestant religious leaders who also advocated civil rights, and he gained a reputation as a priest with ecumenical contacts. In 1968, he moved to Washington to head the U.S. Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, upon the recommendation of William Baum, Law’s mentor. Baum had at that time been appointed bishop of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Mo. After three years, Law returned to the Natchez-Jackson diocese as vicar general.

In 1973, Baum was appointed archbishop of Washington, and Law was named his replacement in Springfield-Cape Girardeau. Law remained as bishop of the largely rural Missouri diocese for 10 years.

In Springfield, he made a name for himself as an energetic bishop. He established Hope House, the area’s first shelter for battered women, a soup kitchen that served some 250 people a day called The Kitchen, and started a program in which parishioners could turn to their parish for help with health care. Among his other notable accomplishments:

  • In 1975, he adopted a Vietnamese men’s religious order, the Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix, whose members had come to the United States as refugees following the Vietnam War. He turned over to them a seminary complex in Carthage, Mo., which would later become the shrine of the Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix, and is today regularly visited by Vietnamese-American Catholics. He sponsored a women’s order of Vietnamese refugees as well, the Congregation of Mary Queen.
  • In 1981, Law drew up guidelines at the behest of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for married Episcopalian ministers who wanted to join the Catholic church after their church’s decision to allow women to be ordained.
  • A 1984 NCR report noted that while in Springfield, Law made a practice of spending each weekend with one of the diocese’s 100 parishes. “The stories told [in the diocese] of Law are of acts of charity,” the report said. For example, “the bishop took into his home, for four years, a local seminarian’s brother who was paralyzed from the neck down from a bullet wound.”

In Springfield, Law first removed a priest from a parish who had sexually abused a minor. Fr. Leonard Chambers was removed from ministry, sent for treatment to a facility in New Mexico and 10 months later, after completing treatment, returned to parish work, as a pastor. Chambers was forced to retire in 1998, after he violated a rule imposed in the 1990s forbidding him to be alone with a minor.

Law was installed as archbishop of Boston March 23, 1984, in succession to Cardinal Humberto Medeiros, who had held that position from 1970 until his death in 1983.

In Boston, Law remained involved in ecumenical and interfaith discussions. In 1986, he led a group of Jews and Catholics to visit the former Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz.

During his 18 years in Boston, Law often preached against abortion, which he once referred to as “the primordial evil of our time.” In the 1984 presidential election, he attacked vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro for her support of legalized abortion. He has at times expressed admiration for Operation Rescue, the antiabortion group some of whose members have advocated violent protest. However, in 1995, he asked for a moratorium on protests at abortion clinics following the shooting deaths of two receptionists at two clinics in the Boston area by a Catholic abortion protester, John Salvi. Law lifted that ban five months later.

One week after Law’s appointment to Boston, John O’Connor, bishop of Scranton, Pa., was appointed archbishop of New York. For the next decade and a half, Law and O’Connor would often join voices in pressing for conformity to church teachings. They would number among the country’s most influential Catholic leaders. A New York Times report Feb. 14, 1984, said: “The assumption that both will uphold church standards and enforce its laws has given rise to a quip now making the rounds: ‘It’s Law in Boston and order in New York.’ ”

Sixteen years later, Law would give the homily at O’Connor’s funeral at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. A dramatic demonstration of support arose spontaneously after Law said O’Connor’s “great legacy” was “his constant reminder that the church must always be unambiguously pro-life.” O’Connor died at the age of 80 after a long battle with brain cancer, during which he refused to surrender his office even after extended convalescence and hospitalization.

In November 1984, some eight months after taking over as Boston archbishop, Law made what would later become one of the pivotal decisions of his episcopacy: He transferred the now-defrocked priest John Geoghan to St. Julia’s Parish in Weston, Mass. He did so despite having access to extensive archdiocesan records compiled over the course of decades that detailed Geoghan’s history of sexually abusing children in earlier parish assignments.

Law’s method of handling the issue of priests who preyed on children was employed in many other dioceses across the country. However, Law and other bishops were given extensive documented information about the tragic consequences of such transfers in January 1985, when the bishops’ conference received a report examining priest sex abuse by a group of medical, church and legal professionals. The group included Fr. Thomas Doyle, who was then secretary to the Vatican’s U.S. ambassador. Law had earlier offered support for the writing of the report. The report said offenders had little chance for a cure and were likely to repeat their offenses. It recommended that the institutional church avoid secrecy when dealing with the problem.

Law’s public record in his first years as archbishop showed firm support for the Vatican. On several occasions, his support led him to oppose positions taken by the U.S. bishops’ conference. In one instance, Law criticized the conference for opposing U.S. aid for the Nicaraguan contras, whom the Reagan administration was funding in their fight against the socialist government of the Sandinistas. In another, he declared that the conference “had no authority whatsoever” to intervene in the Vatican’s dealings with Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, who in 1986 was ordered to turn over authority in several areas of his ministry to Auxiliary Bishop Donald Wuerl following complaints by right-wing Catholics about Hunthausen’s leadership. Hunthausen’s authority was restored in 1987.

Law’s criticisms of the conference may have cost him the support of some of his fellow bishops. In 1986, he lost eight election bids within the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, including bids for the conference’s presidency and vice presidency.

Asked by NCR in 1987 if the role of the bishops’ conference should be curtailed, Law said he thought the conference was too large and too powerful. “I think there’s one collegiality; I don’t think there are two or three or four. There is only a worldwide college of bishops under Rome,” he said.

In 1985, Law proposed the writing of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and in the next 10 years would consult in the writing of that document. Formation of a catechism had previously been left up to individual bishops’ conferences, which some experts thought might speak more effectively to members of their own cultures.

Law was promoted to cardinal on May 25, 1985.

His relationship with The Boston Globe, whose report about Geoghan earlier this year led to the first calls for Law’s resignation, had often been adversarial before that report was published. In 1989, Law attacked what he called “slanderous allegations” when the paper alleged he had struck a deal with President George H. W. Bush. The Globe article said that Bush had requested Law’s silence on the administration’s lack of response to the murders of six Jesuits and two women in El Salvador. In exchange for silence, the Globe said, Law and other U.S. cardinals would receive the president’s support of Catholic issues such as tax money for church day cares, prayer in public schools and opposition to abortion.

Though never a member of Opus Dei, the conservative church watchdog group, Law’s ties to the organization go back to his schooling at Harvard when he became acquainted with two Spaniards who began an Opus Dei chapter at the school. In 1989, he flew to Spain to ordain 19 Opus Dei priests.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Law often consulted with President Bush. Law’s friendship and weekly consultations with John Sununu, a conservative Catholic serving as Bush’s chief of staff, were often noted in the media.

In 1992, Bush announced the appointment of Law as the first chairman of the Commission on Legal Immigration. Throughout his career, Law was among the most vocal advocates for the rights of immigrants and has repeatedly called for the lifting of the embargo against Cuba. When groups first began calling for Law’s resignation in Boston this year, his support in much of the Hispanic community remained strong.

Law, who speaks fluent Spanish, has often been active in foreign policy matters. In December 1989, he helped negotiate the surrender of Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega, who had taken refuge from surrounding U.S. forces in the Vatican embassy in Panama City. Among foreign leaders Law has met with are Cuba’s Fidel Castro, and Daniel Ortega, former Sandinista leader of Nicaragua.

In 1996, Law opposed Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s Catholic Common Ground Project, which called for a “renewed spirit of civility, dialogue, generosity and broad and serious consultation” among Catholics who had become divided by opposing ideology. Law said of the project: “The church already has ‘common ground.’ It is found in sacred scripture.”

Throughout his episcopacy, Law has energetically opposed the death penalty in Massachusetts, which is one of only 12 states that currently have not legalized capital punishment. His opposition has led him to testify at the Massachusetts Statehouse against death penalty legislation.

In January 1993, after reports that now-defrocked priest James Porter had sexually abused over 100 children while ministering as a priest in the nearby Fall River, Mass., diocese, Law announced the creation of an archdiocesan policy for dealing with abusive priests.

He further announced that the archdiocese would review all priest personnel files and reopen cases against priests facing credible charges. Despite this policy change, records released this November have shown that in 1999, Law wrote to Fr. Peter Frost, whose history of sexual abuse of minors was well-documented by in the records, to say that he was considering returning him to ministry, since Frost had gained “the wisdom which emerges from difficult experience.”

Law called media coverage of the Porter case exploitive and singled out the Globe in particular, saying, in a much-publicized quote, “By all means we call down God’s power on the media, particularly the Globe.” Saying he would take no questions about the matter, he called Porter’s history of abuse aberrant.

In 1998, he offered mortgages totaling $250 million to poor Boston-area families that were below the market’s interest rate.

In February 2001, Law received national attention by denying a 5-year-old girl suffering from celiac disease, an allergy to gluten found in bread, the right to substitute a rice wafer at her first Communion. Illustrating a remarkable rigidity for following church teachings, Law wrote to the parents of the girl Oct. 29, 2001: “The law of the church is extremely explicit regarding bread and wine used for the eucharistic celebration. In keeping with the Last Supper narrative found in the gospels, the bread must be made of wheat alone.” Though the girl’s parents were told the girl could still receive by drinking from the Communion cup, the family left the Catholic church in protest of Law’s decision.

The beginning of the end of Law’s career as archbishop came in Jan 2002, when The Boston Globe published an investigative report on Geoghan that was quickly followed by the release to the public of thousands of pages of church documents detailing Geoghan’s long history of abuse.

Though Law publicly apologized for his mishandling of Geoghan and introduced a zero-tolerance policy for priests who commit such crimes, the pressure for Law’s resignation mounted as records of other Boston priests were released to the public.

In April, Law met with the pope, who refused to accept Law’s resignation. Back in Boston, Law offered further apology and met with victims in an attempt to regain archdiocese support.

Law and the archdiocese received renewed bad publicity following the release of more church documents regarding more abusive priests in November, which led him to meet once again with the pope. Facing calls for him to step down by 58 archdiocesan priests, numerous church reform-minded and victims advocacy groups, and local and national newspaper editorial writers, on Dec. 13 Law received the pope’s approval and resigned, becoming the first U.S. archbishop forced out of office for having mishandled sexually abusive priests.

Gill Donovan is a writer for NCR. His e-mail address is gdonovan@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, December 27, 2002