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.
That is not hyperbole.
That is fact.
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.
It won’t. It shouldn’t.
Bernie Law was to the Vatican what Harvey Weinstein is to Hollywood. Bernie, as an enabler of abuse, and Harvey, as the abuser himself, ruined more than their own legacies. They ruined everything that made them and everything they cared about.
I know it’s good form and even expected to speak well of the dead, and in that spirit I will enthusiastically say that Bernie Law did many good things in his life, whether it was marching for civil rights in the South or reaching out to Jews everywhere or Latinos in the South End or ordinary Catholics in West Roxbury and everybody who still goes to Mass somewhere within Route 128.
Bernie Law, as a pastor, doing wonderfully charitable things, I witnessed in person. God love him.
But, please, in the name of everything we hold sacred, let’s not disabuse ourselves of the abuse he enabled. 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.
Why did Bernie Law turn a blind eye?
As with any human being, we can never be sure. But, if I had to guess, the word is ambition.
At Adams House, where he lived as a Harvard undergraduate, he aspired to be the first American pope.
There’s nothing wrong with ambition, but his ambition to be pope bordered on hubris.
And hubris followed Bernie Law wherever he went.
When he became the archbishop of Boston, he insisted that the office staff call him “Your Eminence.”
His position as the archbishop of Boston, presiding over one of the biggest flocks of Catholics in the world, was a staging area for an ambitious cardinal.
And the truth of the matter is he probably was on the short list of potential popes before everything blew up in 2002.
But everything blew up, and it showed that Bernie Law was not a pastor as much as a manipulative, self-interested bureaucrat. And a lousy administrator.
His penance could have been profound. But it wasn’t.
After he resigned as the archbishop of Boston, he was supposedly sent to a convent of nuns in Maryland, to reflect on what he did wrong. I frequently called that convent, asking to speak with Bernie Law. But they would never connect us, and a few of my conversations with the good sisters there led me to believe he was never there.
“You might want to try him in that hotel in Washington,” one of the nuns told me.
And that was so Bernie.
The idea that Bernie Law served some kind of penance is nonsense. He wasn’t punished by the Vatican. He was rewarded, promoted, given a sinecure at one of the seven great churches in Rome. In Rome, he wasn’t an archvillain. He was something the Vatican calls an archpriest. Nuns waited on him hand and foot. He was the ultimate company guy. Like a lot of victims of the abuse Bernie Law enabled, Joe Crowley had accommodations that were not nearly as plush.
His health, ruined by cigarettes and the booze he used to block out memories no human being should have, left him living in a series of places in Brookline that he didn’t much like. Joe got sober and helped more people than Bernie Law ever did.
Joe Crowley, a Dorchester kid, was a 15-year-old student at Boston College High, in the college prep program, when a predator wearing a Roman collar named Paul Shanley latched onto him like a leech. Joe’s life changed, changed utterly, because Shanley raped him and passed him onto other men, including priests, like he was nothing more than a cigarette.
It took many, many years for Joe to claim his life back, and the sad truth is he never claimed it back completely because you can never take back what people like that take from you.
But he did his best, and I will go to my grave believing that Joe Crowley was one of the greatest human beings I’ve ever met, and that Bernie Law was nowhere in his league.
Joe Crowley’s big heart gave out last April. He was 58, and his wake was one big AA meeting, where dozens of people he helped stood up, like they were at a Pentecostal church, and talked about how Joe saved their lives. The only blessing is that Joe died before the priest who ruined his life got out of prison in July.
Cardinal Law was not a clueless bureaucrat. He knew exactly what he was doing. He knew, when the reports of priests raping and molesting children came across his desk, exactly what was going on. He let Shanley move to California, not telling other bishops and priests there that they were inheriting someone who violated children, along with his vows.
He forsook his position as a bishop, protecting his flock. Instead, he protected the institution and the men who used Roman collars as bait to abuse young people. He moved them to other parishes and places where they could rape again.
That is his legacy. That is what should be carved on his gravestone. It is the hard and horrible and inescapable truth.
And if the Catholic Church doesn’t have the truth, what does it have?
Years after everything blew up, and after Shanley went to prison, Joe Crowley was standing in the lobby of the Back Bay apartment building where he was the concierge, and Cardinal Law walked in.
Despite everything, Cardinal Law never shied from returning to Boston, and there he was, asking to take an elevator to a dinner party, and there was Joe Crowley, looking at the man who had protected the priest who had raped him.
In his head, Joe Crowley imagined calling Cardinal Law every name in the book, and then some. Instead, he nodded politely and when Cardinal Law said, “Good evening,” he replied, “Good evening.”
Joe Crowley had way more class then, and, even in his grave, he still does.
Kevin Cullen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.