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Vatican abuse tribunal has much work to do

Cardinal Bernard Law resigned in disgrace as Archbishop of Boston in late 2002 and continues to live in gilded retirement Rome.AP/File

Even for an institution that measures its history in centuries, not decades, the Vatican’s move toward sanctions against bishops who cover up for pedophile priests seems glacial.

So when news arrived last week that Pope Francis has approved the creation of a church tribunal to do just that, embracing the recommendations of a papal commission led by Boston’s archbishop, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, you could imagine a Greek chorus of abuse victims responding: “It’s about time.’’

Had the tribunal been in place back in 2002, when the clergy sexual abuse crisis exploded in Boston and quickly spread around the globe, there is little doubt who would have been the first bishop hauled before the panel.


That would be Bernard Francis Law, one of O’Malley’s predecessors who resigned in disgrace in late 2002 and continues to live in gilded retirement in Rome where he is regarded — if not quite a pariah — as an embarrassment, an archbishop whose silence, even after he knew kids were being assaulted, was beyond indefensible.

“I’d be surprised if he doesn’t carry the burden of conscience,’’ said Tom Blanchette, who was molested by a priest in Sudbury when he was just 12 years old.

I called Blanchette because the story of his abuse, which my Globe colleague Sacha Pfeiffer and I first reported in early 2002, was so horrific, so damning, and so disturbingly cinematic.

The story begins just after the Rev. Joseph E. Birmingham moved to Sudbury, assigned to Our Lady of Fatima, and quickly became a frequent guest of the Blanchettes and their household of seven boys and two girls.

He was over for dinner one night, and then-little Tommy was sick and under the covers in his bed, when the priest asked for permission to go down the hall and check on the boy. “The next thing I know, his hands are down my pajamas,’’ Blanchette recalled.


What followed was serial abuse so searing that Blanchette to this day can recall the pattern on the wallpaper in Birmingham’s rectory bedroom, and the red interior of his black 1963 Ford Galaxy where the attacks raged on.

Over time, Blanchette learned that Birmingham had abused four of his brothers, too. One consequence: As Blanchette grew into manhood he found himself short-tempered and angry, ready to pick fights with anyone in authority.

In 1988, a year before Birmingham died, Blanchette made an unannounced visit to the rectory of St. Brigid’s Church in Lexington, where the two men sat in a first-floor meeting room, and where Birmingham learned the reason for the visit.

“I’ve come here to ask you to forgive me for the hatred and resentment that I have felt toward you for the last 25 years,’’ Blanchette told the incredulous priest. Just hours before Birmingham died in April 1989, Blanchette, was at his hospital bedside in Arlington, where he prayed for his attacker. And Blanchette was in the church when Cardinal Law presided at Birmingham’s funeral.

After Mass, Blanchette told Law about his abuse by the parish priest. He warned Law that many other men, similarly abused, would need counseling. And then, stunningly, this: Law “laid his hands on my head for two to three minutes and then said, ‘I bind you by the power of the confessional never to speak about this to anyone else.’ ”


Tom Blanchette, 67, now lives in Hilton Head, S.C., where once a week he drives 45 miles to one of that state’s poorest counties, delivering food supplied by the federal government.

I wonder if Cardinal Law is doing something like that in Rome. I doubt it.

Law could take a lesson from Blanchette in Christian charity. Perhaps we all could take a lesson from him about the art of forgiveness.

“The Bible tells me to love my enemy and to pray for those who persecute me,’’ Blanchette said. “Forgiveness is the act of the will. You can’t fake it.’’

But even he wonders about men whose first impulse was not to protect children, but an institution that routinely kept ugly and criminal secrets.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @FarragherTom.