Cardinal Bernard F. Law’s tempestuous road to resignation was marked by roiling protests, televised apologies, secret sessions beyond velvet ropes at the Vatican, and the specter of financial calamity.
But the roots of the archbishop of Boston’s demise lay in a simple admission he made in court papers in June 2001 and then re affirmed with a damning repetition.
He knew about allegations that John J. Geoghan, the now-convicted child molester, had been attacking little boys and returned him to parish work nevertheless.
He knew that the Rev. James D. Foley had fathered two children with a woman who later died from a drug overdose after going to bed with him, and yet he kept Foley in active ministry until this month.
Law knew that the Rev. Peter J. Frost was an admitted sex addict and child abuser and still held open the prospect of future ministry for him.
With an undeniable certainty, the cardinal’s own words, revealed in documents forced from locked chancery filing cabinets by court order, confirmed that knowledge.
Law blamed sloppy record-keeping. He blamed a leadership style in which he delegated tough personnel decisions to subordinates. He said he tragically had relied on now-outdated medical advice to return predatory clergymen to churches where they enjoyed access to children.
And for a time, as last winter’s seismic revelations about widespread clergy sexual abuse began to fade, it appeared Law might survive the storm.
But when the year ended as it began - with a release of graphic court records last week that made clear that Law’s knowledge about abusive priests was more extensive than he had acknowledged - the cardinal’s paper-thin support was swept away.
“It struck like an explosion and things were suddenly worse than they were at the beginning,” said Thomas H. O’Connor, a Boston College historian. “If there had been any wiggle room at all, it was now gone.”
The beginning of the end for Law and his 18-year tenure in Boston came in the summer of 2001 after 86 people who said Geoghan had assaulted them as children filed civil lawsuits against Geoghan and his supervisors. In response, Law acknowledged that within six months of his arrival here in 1984, he knew Geoghan was notified of charges that Geoghan had molested seven boys.
That admission, and a judge’s ruling to unseal Geoghan’s court file, triggered months of reporting by the Globe that showed that it took a succession of three cardinals and many bishops 34 years to place children beyond Geoghan’s reach.
In January, the Globe reported that the archdiocese had secretly settled child molestation claims against at least 70 priests over the past decade.
At first, Law refused to discuss the issue with the newspaper.
But the January stories provoked such instant fury that Law abandoned his policy of silence within days. Dressed in a simple black cassock, he stood before reporters and a phalanx of television cameras at a press conference and - without defensiveness - said he was “profoundly sorry.”
“With all my heart I wish to apologize once again for the harm done to the victims of sexual abuse by priests,” the nation’s most senior cardinal said. “I do so in my own name, but also in the name of my brother priests. These days are particularly painful for the victims of John Geoghan. My apology to them and their families, and particularly to those who were abused in assignments which I made, comes from a grieving heart.”
A few days later, Law made it clear that while apologetic, he was not ready to leave.
“My resignation is not part of the solution as I see it,” Law told 500 Boston-area priests in late January. “I want the archdiocese to become a model for how this issue should be handled. I have a responsibility as your archbishop to help that happen, and I want you to know that with every fiber of my being I am going to try and see that that happens.”
By early February, Law had twice reassured the public that he had removed all priests known to have sexually attacked minors.
“There is no priest known to us to have been guilty of the sexual abuse of a minor holding any position in this archdiocese,” Law said.
When reporters pressed him, he repeated that assertion three times.
And then, with an edge in his voice, he insisted: “There is no priest, or former priest, working in this archdiocese in any assignment whom we know to have been responsible for sexual abuse. I hope you get that straight.”
In fact, the archdiocese would find many more, and it was forced to remove them from their ministries, stunning their unsuspecting parishioners.
As Law fought for his job, the scandal spread and gained momentum. Polls showed nearly half of local Catholics wanted him out. The cardinal found himself on the cover of national magazines.
The church in crisis became fodder for talk radio’s echo chamber. Television reporters standing outside brightly lit churches became a staple of the 11 p.m. news as the chancery pored through records and began removing some 20 priests against whom there were credible accusations of sexual misconduct.
Through it all, Law personified the crisis. Rarely seen in public, his residence became his bunker. Cartoonists satirized him. Protesters heckled him. Late-night comics lampooned him. Catholic audiences rescinded their invitations for him to speak.
With Law deeply wounded, a nascent revolt took form. Priests began a loose association to air their concerns. In February, a restive group of faithful Catholics began to gather in a Wellesley church basement, seeking to amplify the voice of lay people in a church led by bishops like Law.
The cardinal, once one of the most prominent figures in New England, appeared to sense the erosion of his ability to lead the third-largest diocese in the United States. On Feb. 19, he called to the chancery a constellation of prominent Catholics - many of whom had been in Rome when he was elevated to cardinal. Law wanted their advice about how to negotiate the scandal’s shoals.
The cardinal spoke for about 20 minutes. Somewhat defensively, he characterized his handling of the crisis as “flawed.” William Bulger, president of the University of Massachusetts, interrupted him, telling the cardinal that “flawed” was too temperate a word.
“It’s been disastrous,” said Bulger, as heads around the cardinal’s conference table nodded in agreement.
As dioceses around the nation checked their personnel files and began to dismiss sexually abusive clergy of their own, the cases in Boston mushroomed.
Prosecutors who spoke gravely about the possibility of a grand jury persuaded the archdiocese to waive confidentiality agreements that had prevented victims from giving law enforcement authorities details about priests who sexually abused them as children. More than 300 more alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse reached out to lawyers. The archdiocese, already in fiscal distress, faced tens of millions of dollars in extra costs to settle lawsuits.
In March, the first major business leader said it was time for Law to quit. “There is only one way for the Archdiocese of Boston to put this scandal behind it and regain its rightful role as a force for good within our community,” David F. D’Alessandro, the chairman and chief executive officer of John Hancock Financial Services Inc., wrote in a Globe opinion piece. “And that is with a new pastor and teacher and father at the top.”
Even as the church promised a policy of openness, Law’s lawyers fought in court against efforts to have it produce records about whether Law knowingly allowed the Rev. Paul R. Shanley, who had allegedly molested children, to remain in his Newton parish. Court battles against the production of archdiocesan records would continue until year’s end.
“When you look at the documents with an objective eye, the reader almost wants to disbelieve what is contained in them,” said Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer who represented scores of Geoghan’s victims. “It’s almost surreal that the supposed most moral institution in the world could act so immorally. Those uncontested facts led to the demise of Bernard Cardinal Law.”
A turning point arrived in April when new records revealed that Law and his deputies for more than a decade had ignored allegations of Shanley’s sexual misconduct and reacted casually to complaints that Shanley endorsed sex between men and boys. With those damaging documents - projected by lawyers for two hours from a laptop computer onto a large screen in a downtown hotel ballroom - the demand for Law’s dismissal reached a fever pitch.
“I’ve done a lot of this stuff, but I’d never seen records like this,” said plaintiffs’ lawyer Roderick MacLeish Jr. “On the one hand I thought, `This is really great for the case.’ On the other, I thought, `This is really horrifying.’ “
A color photograph of Law shaking Shanley’s hand, which MacLeish had made the centerpiece of his high-tech presentation, made national news that night.
Within days, as financial support to Catholic Charities fell sharply, a sizable majority of area Catholics - 65 percent in one poll - said they wanted Law to step down. The cardinal flew secretly to Rome where he discussed calls for his resignation with Pope John Paul II, who then summoned all US cardinals to the Vatican to assess the evolving crisis. Law appeared isolated there, too.
“In a sense, if I had not made the terrible mistakes that I made, we would not be here,” Law, once a rising star in the US Catholic Church, told the American cardinals in Rome. “I apologize for that.”
US cardinals pledged a new policy of zero tolerance toward clergy sexual abusers and affirmed it later during a national bishops’ meeting in Dallas, where Law apologized yet again. He tried to dodge a battalion of reporters, who portrayed him as the man who lit the fuse to one of the worst church scandals in centuries.
In early May, Law was driven into a downtown courthouse behind the tinted windows of an unmarked car to become the first US cardinal ever questioned under oath over issues of clergy sex abuse occurring in his archdiocese.
“In 1984, you knew, did you not, that it would have been wrong for a priest to have sexually molested boys, is that correct?” Law was asked in the pretrial deposition for the civil suit brought by Geoghan’s alleged victims.
“Oh, absolutely,” the cardinal replied.
“And that is something you would have tried to stop from happening?” he was asked.
“That’s correct,” answered Law, who insisted that he could recall little of the critical events surrounding his decision to send Geoghan to a parish in Weston.
For a man accustomed to having his ring kissed and to being addressed as “Your Eminence,” it was a startling spectacle.
Church attendance continued to decline. Financial support waned.
As spring faded into summer, Law - now protected by a special police detail - responded for the first time to a fast-growing lay movement spawned by the crisis. But his answer showed little sensitivity: Law said he would refuse to accept money raised by the Voice of the Faithful for church agencies, schools, and hospitals, infuriating key church supporters.
By mid-October, when Law appeared before his first full news conference since the early days of the crisis, he appeared more confident. He presented a smiling visage and an optimistic view. He promised tough sanctions against abusive priests. He cracked jokes with reporters.
He looked like a man who may have begun to see faint light behind the clouds of a ferocious storm.
But by late November, the cardinal’s lawyers were back in court seeking to block the release of thousands of pages of church records on scores of priests accused of sexual misconduct. A judge flatly refused. The records were coming out. And, like those before them, they were damning.
The files held reports of one priest who beat and terrorized his housekeeper, another who had traded cocaine for sex, and a third who compared himself to Jesus Christ as he enticed teenage girls bound for the convent into sex acts. In some cases, Law reacted to the explosive charges by quietly transferring the rogue priests and handling them with a gentleness that belied the heinous allegations against them.
The records made it clear: The cardinal knew.
“The uncontested facts indicate that they wanted secrecy at any cost,” said Garabedian, the plaintiffs’ attorney. “And the cost of that secrecy was children being sexually molested and families being destroyed. The archdiocese just didn’t care. At first I thought they didn’t understand. But as I looked at these documents I understood that they just didn’t care. And they still don’t care.”
His reputation in tatters, his archdiocese on the precipice of financial collapse, Law again flew secretly to Rome as scores of his priests said publicly that he had lost any moral authority to shepherd them.
“In the end, he had lost his priests,” said O’Connor. “The priests had been his family, so that was particularly poignant.”
This time when Law discussed the possibility of resignation, the Vatican’s first concern was no longer the possible domino effect Law’s departure might mean for the US Catholic Church.
In the same city where in 1985 Law was named a prince of the church, the Vatican accepted his resignation as archbishop of Boston.