When Cardinal Bernard F. Law was asked under oath in June whether he read a letter in 1985 about the Rev. Paul R. Shanley's advocacy of sex between men and boys, he said he probably had. But two days later, Law reversed course, saying that it is likely he had not seen it.
According to a transcript of that testimony that was made public yesterday, Law also acknowledged that he had promoted Shanley to serve as pastor of a Newton parish without consulting the priest's personnel file, which included a 1966 allegation of abuse and other letters complaining of Shanley's unorthodox sexual views. Consulting such files was not his practice, he said. Instead, he relied heavily on advice from aides in personnel decisions.
Also, after an initial denial, Law said he first confronted sex abuse charges against another priest 30 years ago, when he accepted the priest's assurance that the victim's family was not upset.
The 359 pages of transcripts from testimony in early June, along with a videotape, revealed a cautious, deliberate church official, a leader who operated in a church culture that placed great emphasis on avoiding scandal and who often transferred abusive priests to parishes unaware of offenses that were common knowledge to other church officials.
Under questioning by Roderick MacLeish Jr., an attorney for Shanley's alleged victims, Law was asked about his knowledge of sexual abuse when he was in Mississippi early in his career. "It wasn't on my radar screen," Law testified. "Sexual molestation wasn't something that was before me."
But when MacLeish raised a specific case, Law acknowledged that when he was vicar general - or the bishop's top deputy - in the early 1970s, he knew that the Rev. George L. Broussard Jr. had inappropriate sexual contact with children.
But Law, who has described himself as a chief executive reliant on aides to deal with abusive priests in the Boston Archdiocese, said that when he served as a bishop's aide, he did not make the decision to transfer Broussard to a parish in Waveland, Miss.
"That would not have been my responsibility," Law testified on June 5, according to the transcripts released yesterday. "It would have been the bishop's responsibility. . . . I did not personally inform people in Waveland . . . about this activity involving the children."
Yet when he was questioned closely about Shanley - the former Boston street priest who is now awaiting trial on child rape charges - Law said he, as archbishop, was not directly involved in some decisions about the priest's career. He said he deferred to his top chancery aides in making key decisions, including the Shanley promotion.
"So you were relying on Bishop [Thomas V.] Daily's decision in appointing Paul Shanley as administrator. Is that correct?" Law was asked.
"That's correct," the cardinal replied.
As the transcripts of Law's pretrial testimony in civil lawsuits, taken June 5 and 7, were released, the cardinal was questioned again all day yesterday at the offices of Greenberg Traurig in Boston by lawyers for the alleged victims of Shanley, who has pleaded not guilty. He faces several more days of questioning in the Shanley case alone.
"It was a considerable challenge to get Cardinal Law to focus on the questions," MacLeish said yesterday about Law's two-day deposition in June. "But I am going to let the transcript of that extraordinary deposition speak for itself."
MacLeish and Law spent a long stretch of the deposition jousting verbally over what Law knew about an April 1985 letter asserting that Shanley had publicly espoused sex between adults and children.
At one point, Law offered to change an earlier written statement that he had not read the letter in 1985, then reverted to his initial statement that he most likely had not seen it.
Law's shifting statements concerned a letter from a Rochester, N.Y., woman, Wilma Higgs. She wrote that she had attended a talk at which Shanley expressed approval of sex between men and boys and said that children were often the seducers in sexual relationships between adults and children. The woman also said she had a tape-recording of the talk.
In his written response to the lawsuits filed against him, Law said he did not "believe" he had seen the letter. But he changed his mind after MacLeish showed him two other letters written by one of his top assistants, John B. McCormack, now the bishop of Manchester, N.H.
In one of the letters, McCormack wrote Higgs to say that Law had seen her letter and was concerned. In the second letter, McCormack wrote to Shanley, saying Law had instructed him to contact Shanley and get a response.
After seeing McCormack's letter to Shanley, Law said he would like to change his written statement to say, "The defendant believes that he did read the Higgs letter in 1985."
But two days later, after conversations with his attorneys, Law said he wished to go back to his written statement, in which he said, "The defendant does not believe he read the Higgs letter in 1985."
When MacLeish argued that, in fact, Law did not know whether he had seen the letter, the cardinal said the accuracy of his written statement hinged on the definition of the word "believe." Finally, Law said he would stick by his initial written statement. "I would rather leave it as I originally said it," he said.
Under questioning by MacLeish, Law also backpedaled from an assertion by his lawyers in court papers filed in April that "negligence" by a Newton boy who was allegedly raped by Shanley, and negligence by the boy's parents, contributed to the abuse.
Asked if he could "conceive of any facts that would support the assertion that a 6-year-old child was somehow negligent in allowing himself to be abused by a Roman Catholic priest," Law replied: ". . . I would say the answer to that is clearly no."
The April filing was standard boilerplate defense language, but critics at the time said Law's attorneys used poor judgment in relying on such a claim in a sexual abuse case.
The cardinal said, however, that "theoretically" there could be "some degree of negligence" by Rodney and Paula Ford, the parents of Gregory Ford. But he said he had "no knowledge whatsoever" that that was the case.
In the same exchange, Law acknowledged that Shanley's supervisors could themselves be negligent if they knew the priest was a risk to children.
Law, as he has done before, reiterated the view that the church's longtime practice of keeping sexual abuse by priests a secret was done out of deference to the victims and their need for confidentiality. But church documents contain evidence that the archdiocese was fearful about the public finding out about the extent of the problem.
That desire to avoid scandal was underscored in questioning by MacLeish.
Q. But there have been other focuses, have there not, Cardinal Law?
A. There have been and there are.
Q. One of those has been to avoid scandal in the church?
A. That's correct.
Law said he now embraces full public disclosure about clergy sexual abuse so that parishioners can act to protect their children.
"I'm grateful to God that we're at the point now where we are," said Law. "I think it's the good place to be. I wish to God it were possible, as I have said on other occasions, to go back in time. But it isn't. I'm not able to go back in time."
Law said when he came to Boston in 1984 as the new archbishop, he saw no need to reinvestigate the personnel files of priests. Some of those records where kept in a secret, locked cabinet to which Law held a key.
He said, at one point, he was unaware that those archives contained evidence of past sexual abuse by a priest who had pleaded guilty in 1984 to raping an altar boy.
The cardinal said his practice was to seek the analysis of psychiatrists, clinicians, and therapists in residential treatment centers before deciding whether a priest accused of sexually abusing a child should be returned to the pulpit.
Some, like the Rev. Daniel Graham, were. MacLeish asked why.
Q. And did the thought ever come to you, Cardinal Law, in the case of Daniel Graham, that the parishioners at the parish where Daniel Graham was pastor, and at the parishes where he later had some responsibility as vicar, that [it] would be important for the parents to know that the man who was their pastor had admitted to molesting a child? Did that thought occur to you at any time, Cardinal Law?"
After an objection, Law replied.
A. "You indicated to counsel a moment ago that this was not a trial, that this was a deposition. . . . Sometimes I feel you're conducting it as though it were a trial."
Graham, who was removed from St. Joseph Church in Quincy by the archdiocese in February, had been promoted to pastor by Law in 1990, even though the archdiocese had received a credible complaint of sexual misconduct against him. In 1996, Law again promoted Graham to the position of area vicar, with oversight of 19 parishes in Braintree, Milton, Quincy, and Randolph, even though Graham had, by then, admitted to the sexual abuse allegation.
The deposition transcripts provided some surprises.
For one, Law identified McCormack of the Manchester Diocese as the principal author of the Boston Archdiocese's 1993 sexual abuse policy. McCormack has come under fire for not reacting firmly to cases of sexually abusive priests while he was an aide to Law from 1984 to 1994.
At another point, reading from a deposition of the Rev. Charles Higgins, who now handles sexual abuse allegations for the archdiocese, MacLeish disclosed during the first day of Law's deposition that Higgins testified that 85 priests who were known to have abused children probably served in more than 200 parishes during their careers - more than half the parishes in the archdiocese.
Under questioning, Law acknowledged that since many of those priests have not been publicly identified, the archdiocese ought to reach out to people in those parishes to see if there are victims who need assistance.
"To answer your question about do I think it would be wise, well, responsible, to have this kind of outreach, my answer to that is yes. But it's going to take us awhile to be able to do this in terms of the numbers involved," Law testified.
In the Mississippi case, Law was questioned about his tenure as second in command of a diocese in the early 1970s. Law admitted - after an initial denial - that he knew about a priest who molested a child, but accepted the priest's assurance that the victim's family was not upset. The cardinal referred to the abuse as "boundary violations" and "inappropriate affection."
Kenneth Morrison, 37, one of three brothers who have filed civil suit against Broussard, the Jackson Diocese, and Law, said yesterday he was outraged by Law's characterization of Broussard's alleged assault of him.
"Having a naked priest atop me as a young boy, and his mouth covering mine so I couldn't cry out, that's an assault, not a boundary violation . . . and certainly has nothing to do with affection," he said.
In their lawsuit, which was filed seven days after Law was deposed, the Morrison brothers said their father, a physician who died in 1998, told Law of Broussard's alleged molestations of two of the older boys in 1973. Law, in the deposition released yesterday, said he couldn't recall whether Dr. Morrison had made such a complaint to him.
Law was also careful to describe a very limited role for himself in dealing with Broussard, who was a friend of his, having attended the same seminary school in Columbus, Ohio. He said that it was the responsibility of the Jackson Diocese bishop, and not him as vicar general, to discipline Broussard, and that was done. After the allegations became known, Broussard was removed from his parish, sent for treatment to a medical facility, and then transferred to another parish.
Two other lawsuits have been filed since the Morrisons' in Mississippi, charging Law with failing to remove two other priests for alleged acts of molestation that he became aware of as vicar general. Law is scheduled to file responses to those lawsuits later this month.
Yesterday, Wilson D. Rogers Jr., one of the cardinal's lawyers, characterized Law's responses in the deposition, including those that pertained to his tenure as vicar general in Mississippi, as "thoughtful" and "totally forthcoming."
Although MacLeish and Law's lawyers occassionally sparred during the seven hours of testimony, the lawyer and the cardinal had only a few testy exchanges.
MacLeish, in his efforts to call into question Law's judgment, took a backhanded swipe at Law's Harvard pedigree, prefacing one question with this introduction: "Well, you, at least, because you're someone who has graduated from Harvard College, you're a person with good judgment and common sense."
Not long after that, MacLeish challenged Law's judgment in sending a priest who was an admitted rapist to a different state.
When Law transferred the Rev. Eugene M. O'Sullivan to a New Jersey diocese in 1985 after O'Sullivan got probation after pleading guilty to a rape charge, the cardinal testified that O'Sullivan, after treatment, "could be assigned without risk." The New Jersey bishop - now Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington - was duly informed, he said.
"I wouldn't send someone like this to another diocese without letting the bishop know what the situation was," Law explained.
It was then that MacLeish sprung his trap: It turned out that even Law did not know what the situation was. Law was unaware, he admitted, that his own "secret files," where embarrassing information about priests was kept, contained complaints about O'Sullivan molesting children that were lodged with Cardinal Richard Cushing in 1964.
Q. Is this the type of information you would have wanted to have seen if you were in Bishop McCarrick's position receiving a convicted rapist?
A. This is the type of information, myself, I would have liked to have seen. Hopefully it's the kind of information that will be kept in a much more adequate way moving forward through the experience that we're presently having, yes.
In his defense, Law said it would have been "very logical" for his subordinates to seek out such "pertinent material."
MacLeish asked Law if he was blaming those who worked for him for the O'Sullivan snafu.
"I am not," he said.
"My presumption," Law said, "is also that files on that person would have been - would have been reviewed, but, clearly, as events have shown, particularly in the Shanley case, and now in the O'Sullivan case, there were matters that went back many years that were not readily and immediately available, and that's a shortcoming in the way in which, at least in those two instances, these cases - these allegations were tracked."
O'Sullivan served in four parishes in New Jersey from 1985 until he was summoned back to Boston in 1993.
Stephen Kurkjian, Walter V. Robinson, and Sacha Pfeiffer of the Globe Staff and Globe correspondent Todd Wright contributed to this report.