Cardinal Bernard Law’s downfall began with the courage of victims who came forward to tell their terrible stories of sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests.
But it took the village that once was Boston to oust him from his powerful perch. It’s something to think about as Law’s death in Rome, at age 86, is absorbed and analyzed, 15 years after he left this city in disgrace.
The Boston Globe won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing the priests who preyed on young children, and the system that protected them. But stories from that time also highlight the pivotal role civic leaders played in taking a stand against a prince of the Catholic Church.
Law left after wealthy Catholic donors at the heart of Boston’s business community backed away from him. His death is a marker of time’s passage — and also a reminder of a tribal Boston that doesn’t exist in the form it once did.
It was over for Law when Boston’s power brokers broke with him. David F. D’Alessandro, then the chairman and chief executive officer of John Hancock Financial Services Inc., became the first major business leader to call for Law’s resignation, in an op-ed published in the Globe in March 2002. “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,” he wrote. “And that is with a new pastor and teacher and father at the top.”
Then came the real earthquake. Jack Connors, the leader of Boston’s business community and the Catholic elite, and a longtime member of Law’s inner circle, announced he was no longer advising the cardinal. An annual fund-raiser — considered the pinnacle of the city’s social calendar — was moved from the cardinal’s residence.
With that icy Boston freeze from the old boy’s club, the clock was ticking on the cardinal’s tenure and he knew it. In April, Law went to the Vatican to submit his resignation, but Pope John Paul II rejected it. The Vatican, the Globe reported then, did not want to look like it was reacting to public pressure. It took until December 2002 for that to happen, when Law’s own priests were calling on him to quit. Law again submitted a letter of resignation, and it was accepted.
It’s hard to imagine the saga unfolding today exactly as it did then.
The Globe, uncompromised by any conflicts of interest, put an unrelenting spotlight on the horrors of sexual abuse. A centered, focused business community turned on Law and the Catholic Church, ultimately choosing principle over any status connected to that powerful institution. Although some were reluctant to join the anti-Law brigade, peer pressure brought them into the fold.
Of course, none of it would have happened at all without the brave victims who came forward and the lawyers who represented them. Their stories were impossible to ignore. There was no gray moral area, just pure black or white, right or wrong. Priests, the alleged conduits of grace, were sexually assaulting children. The church was protecting not the children, but their attackers. Law not only looked the other way, he shuffled priests around, allowing them to keep their secrets and continue their attacks.
The victims’ voices alone should have been enough to push Law out. But they weren’t. Law was part of the power elite and, until the power elite rejected him, he would try to hang on. When donors shut off the money spigots, Law’s obituary was written.
Too often, that’s what it takes to make change happen. The weak need the powerful to take up their cause and turn on one of their own.Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.