More than a decade before explosive revelations about Cardinal Bernard F. Law’s handling of abuse allegations against Catholic priests led him to resign in disgrace, the Boston archbishop was held in such high esteem by President George H.W. Bush that he was vetted for a possible presidential appointment, according to Law’s FBI file.
The redacted FBI file, made public in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, includes several death threats against Law dating back to the 1980s, and suggests that agents conducted interviews in spring 2004 — two years after the pivotal Boston Globe Spotlight series — related to the Catholic church’s clergy abuse scandal. Law died in December 2017, at 86, his legacy stained by disclosures that he had enabled abusive priests. The FBI has posted the content of Law’s file on its online archive; the agency declined Tuesday to say when it was published or who filed the request to make the documents public.
In October 1991, the FBI conducted an expedited background investigation into Law, who was “being considered for presidential appointment” by Bush. A search of Globe archives found no stories about a presidential appointment, but it was well known that Law and Bush were close friends who spoke frequently during Bush’s term in the White House.
“There’s an extraordinary bond between them,” Douglas Wead, Bush’s White House liaison with the religious community, said of Law and Bush in a 1989 Globe story. “They have found that they share common views and values on life. They simply enjoy each other’s company.”
The Globe reported at the time that Bush and Law liked to discuss religious matters and general issues, as well as people they had met and places they had seen.
The FBI file does not indicate what post Law was being considered for, but notes it would not require Senate confirmation.
Agents were directed to review records concerning Law, his employment, and his close relatives, and to check with federal prosecutors to see whether he had been involved in any criminal or civil cases. The response from the FBI’s Boston office cited several references to threats against Law.
The background check apparently came up clean. The department “did not identify any files that contain pertinent information identifiable with the subject of this inquiry based on the data provided,” the department wrote on Oct. 15, 1991.
The oldest items in the file are threats from the 1980s. In one, from 1986, a threatening letter was sent in an envelope with a swastika as the return address. The letter contained a death threat, antigay slurs, and a reference to Hitler.
The writer, whose name is redacted, was a “chronic paranoid schizophrenic” who had been writing letters to public officials since 1964, the FBI wrote. The man tended to pen threatening letters when he was off his medication and was “always apologetic for his letter-writing” once he was back on his prescriptions, the report states.
In 1990, Law was among a group of public figures, including President Bush, Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy, and Pope John Paul II, who were targeted by a “prolific letter writer” who was well known to the Secret Service for making hoax threats.
In 2002, the FBI investigated a suspected anthrax attack against Law, less than a year after a spate of anthrax attacks on public figures in the United States. Tests concluded that a powder sent to Law by mail was not dangerous. FBI agents in New Orleans interviewed the apparent sender, a woman who claimed that the powder was made from a rare root and was intended as a blessing.
“The subject did not mean to harm anyone,” a report stated.
The file also contains newspaper clippings from The Boston Globe and Boston Herald, published in 2002. Both are opinion pieces that criticized Law’s protection of accused priests and mentioned former state senator William Bulger’s alleged protection of his brother, mobster James “Whitey” Bulger. It also includes a 2005 Globe story about an agreement between the Boston Archdiocese and the US government that required scrutiny of priests who wanted to work as federal chaplains.
In spring 2004, the FBI apparently conducted a series of interviews related to the church scandal. The records of these conversations are heavily redacted, with some pages showing only a line or two of disjointed text. At least some of the interviews seem to have concerned the process of assigning priests to churches. One report mentions the Rev. John Geoghan, a notorious figure in the Boston scandal who was convicted of abuse, imprisoned, and then murdered by a fellow inmate. The bulk of the report is redacted.