A Judgment Day Cardinal Law Can’t Avoid

Cardinal Bernard Law celebrating Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome in 2005.

“Mom, why wasn’t I baptized?”

That was my 13-year old son, David, a month ago, wondering, as he had before, why he hadn’t been given the sacramental welcome to the Catholic faith, as had his brother, Charlie, who is seven years older. This time, David was mature enough for me to explain.

He was born after we had learned that for decades, the church enabled pedophile priests to sexually assault thousands of children. Paying secret settlements, transferring these priests, coaxing silence from victims and families, our church violated Catholics’ faith, then shamefully appealed to those same beliefs to cover its crimes.

David, how could I trust the Catholic Church with you, my baby boy?

Remembering all this, I fill with rage and sorrow. I did again on Wednesday, reading that Pope Francis will participate in a funeral Mass for Cardinal Bernard Law, the former archbishop of Boston, who, for many Catholics, is the institutional face of the scandal. Pope Francis, the Holy Father many Catholics prayed would finally hold men like Cardinal Law to full account, will instead continue to honor him in death.

The victims were as young as 4 years old. Many came from poor families, led by single parents or immigrants who turned to the church for help, and to priests like Boston’s John Geoghan as an example for their sons. Mr. Geoghan preyed on and raped children like these for the duration of his priesthood. But Mr. Geoghan was one of the many pedophile priests whom Cardinal Law spent decades shielding and shifting from one parish to the next, supplying them with ever more victims, building a temple of lies.

From The Boston Globe’s 2002 series that brought the pillars down:

“Cardinal Bernard F. Law knew about Geoghan’s problems in 1984, Law’s first year in Boston, yet approved his transfer. … Wilson D. Rogers Jr., the cardinal’s attorney, defended the move. … Since 1997, the archdiocese has settled about 50 lawsuits against Geoghan, for more than $10 million — but with no confidential documents ever made public. Plaintiffs in the 84 pending lawsuits are refusing to settle their claims as easily, and the church’s internal documents are subject to being revealed in the litigation. So the archdiocese has moved aggressively to keep information about its supervision of Geoghan out of public view. … When Law was named a defendant in 25 of the lawsuits, Rogers asked a judge to impound any reference to the cardinal, arguing that his reputation might be harmed. The judge refused.”

It emerged that the Archdiocese of Boston had settled claims against at least 70 priests in the decade before 2002, most in secret. The number of claims against the archdiocese has only grown since then.

Cardinal Law “put child molesters over children; it’s that simple,” Eric MacLeish, a lawyer who has represented more than 200 sexual abuse victims in the Boston Archdiocese, said after Cardinal Law’s death.

John Geoghan was defrocked and jailed. Forced to resign in 2002, Cardinal Law later retreated to the splendor of the Vatican. There, unpunished, he had multiple leadership roles, including on a committee advising the pope on bishops’ assignments. His chosen bishops still lead many American dioceses.

“It is a sad reality that for many, Cardinal Law’s life and ministry is identified with one overwhelming reality, the crisis of sexual abuse by priests,” Cardinal Sean O’Malley, archbishop of Boston and Cardinal Law’s successor, said on Wednesday. “This fact carries a note of sadness because his pastoral legacy has many other dimensions.”

No. Cardinal Law’s complicity in child sexual abuse negates any “other dimensions.” His behavior should have disqualified him from church leadership. His funeral should be occasion for profound apology, not celebration.

My siblings and I attended Catholic grade school at St. Catherine of Alexandria, in a Chicago suburb. When I was about 10, a new priest arrived in our parish. Parents liked Father Donald Mulsoff: He was young and outgoing, much better with kids than our aging, dour pastor. One day after school a classmate told me a rumor about Father Mulsoff and boys. I didn’t tell my parents for fear I’d get grounded for repeating such a thing. But we stayed away from Father Mulsoff.

In 2003 I was pregnant with David when I did an online search. There was our associate pastor, in an article from the year before. “Mulsoff, 58, was removed last week … after two people filed complaints accusing the priest of sexually abusing them more than 25 years ago, while they were minors. … Mulsoff was ordained in May 1969 and, after leaving St. Catherine in 1974, went on to serve five other parishes in the Chicago archdiocese.”

David is studying the world’s great religions, and he’s interested in one day joining a faith. If he chooses Catholicism, he’ll do so with full knowledge of its institutional sins, armed with truths the church continues to avoid.

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