Cardinal Law's legacy: a stain of scandal on the church

When the clergy sex abuse scandal erupted in Boston in 2002, Cardinal Bernard Law had every reason to think he would survive. Law had a place among the powerbrokers of the heavily Catholic city. He was a friend of U.S. presidents, an emissary of Pope John Paul II.

But after months of disclosures about how he had protected child-molesting priests, Law was driven out as the church found itself in crisis across the U.S. and around the world.

"We're still reeling from the catastrophic damage to the Catholic church's credibility," said Christopher Bellitto, an authority on church history at Kean University in New Jersey.

Law, the disgraced former archbishop of Boston who died Wednesday at age 86 in Rome, was an unlikely catalyst for this darkest chapter of American Catholicism.

He arrived in Boston in 1984 with a record of civil rights activism starting in the 1960s as a young priest in Mississippi, where he sometimes traveled in the trunks of cars for safety. He had lived in many countries and was educated at Harvard. He was devoted to building relationships with Jews and other Christians.

"The promise that he seemed to represent when he first came to Boston, it seemed to herald a new day," said James O'Toole, a Boston College historian.

But that goodwill evaporated in 2002, when The Boston Globe began a series of stories about how Law and his predecessors had failed to protect young people from pedophile priests.

The articles were partly based on previously confidential church records. Amid the files, which held stomach-churning details of how priests had sexually assaulted children, were notes of sympathy and concern from church leaders, including Law, for the accused clerics.

"I realize this is a difficult time for you and for those close to you," Law wrote in 1994 to then-priest John Geoghan, who already had a record of allegations and would eventually be accused of molesting more than 130 children. "If I can be of help to you in some way please contact me. Be assured you are remembered in my prayers."

Law said he relied on the faulty advice of physicians and psychiatrists in allowing priests to stay on in parishes. But the documents unearthed by the Globe showed a record of church leaders ignoring pleas for help from parents and expressing hostility toward those who came forward to say they had been hurt.

Suddenly, an archbishop accustomed to being photographed at the White House or with Cuba's Fidel Castro was now being seen in court, under the withering examination of attorneys for victims.

The Rev. Thomas Doyle, a former canon lawyer at the Vatican Embassy in Washington who had worked years ago with Law, said he once thought the cardinal would play a completely different role in how the church responded to abuse.

In 1984, when the case of a child-molesting former priest in Louisiana by the name of Gilbert Gauthe was drawing attention to the problem, Doyle and others tried to warn the nation's bishops that abuse was widespread in American dioceses and they should clean house. "Bernard Law believed us and was an active supporter and advocate for what we were doing," Doyle recalled.

At a national conference, Law urged his fellow bishops to follow Doyle's advice. They didn't. Still, Doyle hoped that Law's stature as the archbishop of such an important church post as Boston would make a difference.

When news reports began detailing how Law had sheltered guilty priests, Doyle was stunned.

"I had a hard time believing that the man I had known and trusted was behind one of the worst cover-ups in the country," said Doyle, who became an advocate for victims. "I was even more stunned when I saw his arrogant attitude. I will never know what happened after he got to Boston. Perhaps it was the impact of his rise in the hierarchy, but whatever it was, it was tragic."

The damage to the church can be counted not only in lost moral authority, but also in stark numbers: more than $3 billion in settlements with victims paid out since 1950, thousands of priests removed and a stain of scandal that may not be removed for generations.

Law's wrongdoing ultimately inspired the change that Doyle and his colleagues first sought in the 1980s. In the U.S. church, there is an extensive child protection program and a new policy involving the Vatican that requires removal of guilty priests, even though those standards are not always enforced.

"Had he not engineered the terrible cover-up in Boston, the victims there might never have become angry and determined enough to come forward," Doyle said. "In a real sense, Cardinal Law is an anti-hero. His attempts at control and cover-up led to the 2002 tsunami, which in turn led to society's acceptance of the evil of sexual abuse."