For victims of clergy sexual abuse and their advocates, Cardinal Bernard F. Law was a powerful man whose lasting legacy is one of pain.
Law, whose 19-year tenure as head of the Archdiocese of Boston ended in his resignation 15 years ago after it was revealed he had failed to remove sexually abusive priests from ministry, setting off a scandal that reached around the world, died Tuesday in Rome. He was 86.
Law’s death, after weeks of failing health, reawakened hurt and pain felt by victims of clergy sex abuse.
Phil Saviano, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse by a priest in Worcester, said Law’s death should be a source of relief for victims — “one less person around to remind them of their experiences.”
“I think of Cardinal Law and mostly what I think of is what a waste — how he really squandered all of the power he had here in the 80s and the 90s,” Saviano said in a statement late Tuesday.
“He was in such a position to do so much good for so many people. And yet somehow, he decided that the reputation and the protection of those 200 child-molesting priests in the archdiocese was more important than the well-being of thousands of children and parishioners. “
He added, “To me, it’s a source of consternation and a mystery. What was he thinking?”
Saviano said he wondered if Law had done any soul-searching about legacy as he lay on his deathbed.
“Now comes the day when, as Catholics believe, the last judgment is at hand,” Saviano said, “and I’m very curious to know what was going through his mind in recent weeks as his health has been fading and how he’s going to answer those questions as he comes face-to-face with his maker.”
Another survivor, Alexa MacPherson of Holbrook, had a different reaction to Law’s death.
“I hope the gates of Hell are swinging wide open to welcome him,” said MacPherson, 42, who grew up in Dorchester.
“He just wanted to cover up and protect the image of the church,” she added later.
The impact of Law’s resignation reverberated for years across the Archdiocese of Boston. The financial crisis that followed forced the closing or consolidation of dozens of parishes. The crisis also led to the creation of support networks that continue to advocate for sexual abuse victims.
“He’s a symbol for a lot of the cataclysmic changes that have taken place in the church during the past 15 years,” said Eric MacLeish, a lawyer who said he’s represented about 230 sexual abuse victims in the archdiocese.
Barbara Dorris, executive director of the St. Louis-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said Law betrayed the “whole community of Boston.”
She hoped his death would bring “some peace” to survivors of clergy sex abuse.
“He knowingly moved child predators from parish to parish, exposing countless children to danger,” she said.
Ann Hagan Webb, a survivor who lives in Boston, offered condolences to Law’s family.
But, she said, Law was a “poster child for what not to do.”
“Boston continues to be an open wound about this issue,” said Webb, who is a psychologist who specializes in working with clergy abuse victims.
The Archdiocese of Boston did not release a statement regarding’s Law’s death by early Wednesday morning. The Vatican also had not commented.
Webb implored Pope Francis not to bury Law with the full “pomp and circumstance” that is typically afforded other cardinals. The burial, she said, should be done quickly and quietly. Victims of priest abuse “live with the pain every day,” she said.
“To see him honored in the end would just be a travesty,” she said.
Law’s death also drew an angry reaction from lawyers who represented sex abuse victims in the archdiocese.
“He put child molesters over children; it’s that simple,” MacLeish said by telephone. “He was a very bad man.”
MacLeish said Law did work to repair relations with Boston’s Jewish community, and was, at times, an eloquent advocate for racial equality. But MacLeish questioned whether he took those positions simply to advance his career and obtain greater power.
MacLeish spent nine days with Law taking his deposition for clergy sexual abuse cases. He recalled Law arriving at his office with a police escort on the first day of the deposition; someone had threatened Law’s life, he said.
During a break in the deposition, both men went to the bathroom, where Law asked MacLeish, “How do you think I’m doing?” MacLeish said he told him he was doing great.
Law had a “larger-than-life” presence, said MacLeish. He was a person who had intellectual heft and knew it.
“He was arrogant,” said MacLeish.
Another attorney, Mitchell Garabedian, estimates he has represented more than 500 clergy sexual abuse victims in Greater Boston.
For many victims, Law was a reminder of unnecessary pain, said Garabedian. His legacy, said Garabedian, is one of pain. He turned his back on innocent children, said Garabedian.
“Every time his name is brought up my clients are reminded of pain,” he said. “They wish the pain would go away, but it doesn’t.”