THE VATICAN’S TONE-DEAF REACTION to the death of the disgraced Cardinal Bernard Law risks deepening the pain for survivors of the clergy sex abuse scandal in Boston. According to news reports, Pope Francis will attend a funeral Mass for Law at St. Peter’s Basilica on Thursday, and preside over a part of the service called the rite of final commendation. Law headed the Boston archdiocese from 1984 until 2002, a shameful period in which the church shielded pedophile priests from exposure and returned them to parishes where some continued to attack children.
It’s to be expected that the Vatican would mark the passing of a prince of the church in some fashion. Before the abuse scandal prompted his resignation, Law was known for encouraging interfaith dialogue and defending immigrants, a legacy that some Bostonians want remembered alongside his misdeeds. But according Law the full pomp of a funeral at St. Peter’s sends the message that the church still fails to get the seriousness of clergy abuse.
Law’s successor, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, has wisely chosen not to fly to Rome for the ceremony. O’Malley inherited from Law an archdiocese reeling from lawsuits, and from a profound loss of confidence among many Massachusetts Catholics. What particularly offended so many Catholics was the church’s seeming obliviousness to the seriousness of the child abuse, which it brushed off like a trifling indiscretion. Instead of calling the police when alerted to priests molesting children, church officials transferred them to other parishes. Instead of reaching out to traumatized victims, Law sent comforting letters to accused priests. The church appeared to have worried more about its own reputation than about protecting children from life-shattering abuse.
That’s changed in Boston. O’Malley clearly recognizes the toll of abuse, and has repeatedly reached out and apologized to victims. His statement on Law’s death rightly acknowledged the grievous harm suffered during his tenure in Boston. O’Malley is rebuilding confidence in the church as an institution.
But the grandeur of the Vatican services for Law at St. Peter’s won’t help that effort. The decision to honor him in such fashion, as if he were just another cardinal, suggests that the misguided instincts that did so much harm in the ’80s and ’90s — the failure to understand the deadly seriousness of abuse, the reflexive tendency of church hierarchy to side with its own — haven’t quite faded away. The pope did not even mention Law’s victims in his statement on the cardinal’s death. Vatican tradition is no excuse. It should be possible for the church to recognize Law’s life, in all its dimensions, with more respect for the survivors.