'The Hurt Is Still There': Clergy Abuse Survivors, Others React To Cardinal Law's Death

Dec 21, 2017


Reaction to the death of Cardinal Bernard Law, the man who came to be the face of the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, has been emotional, particularly for survivors of clergy abuse.

Law, who led the Boston archdiocese for 19 years before he stepped down in disgrace over the scandal in 2002, died in Rome early Wednesday. He was 86.

Cardinal Seán O'Malley, the current leader of Boston's archdioceses, said his predecessor was more than the mistakes he made when he failed to properly address clergy sex abuse. O'Malley said he understands how the death of Law has re-opened old wounds for abuse survivors.

"The hurt is still there," he said, speaking to reporters Wednesday. "Healing is still necessary, and we all must be vigilant, especially for prevention of child abuse and to create safe environments."

The 'Fatal Flaws' Of Cardinal Law

Many clergy abuse survivors said they were flooded with emotions upon learning of Law's death.

"He was rewarded with a prestigious position in the Vatican, and he moved on with his life, and he forgot about us over here."

 Alexa MacPherson, a survivor of clergy sexual abuse

Speaking to reporters, some survivors gathered to reflect on Law's death and the abuse they suffered by the priests he oversaw in Boston.

One of the survivors, Bob Costello, said those memories still haunt him — even decades later. He told reporters he remembers meeting with Cardinal Law.

"During the meeting I discussed why he hadn't done anything, and he really couldn't give me an answer," Costello said. "He just couldn't come to terms with saying that he lied and that he cheated, and that he allowed children to be raped."

Costello and another survivor who spoke to reporters, Alexa MacPherson, said they are both still angry that after Law stepped down he was appointed to an influential post at the Vatican. Law worked there until he retired six years ago.

"He was never held accountable," MacPherson said. "He was rewarded with a prestigious position in the Vatican, and he moved on with his life, and he forgot about us over here."

Another survivor said he no longer has bitterness toward Law. Olan Horne met with Law and was the first clergy abuse survivor to meet with the Pope about the scandal.

Horne said Law was a flawed man who finally listened to survivors' stories and left a position where he was considered one of the most influential U.S. voices to the Vatican.

"He responded, and he resigned. He accepted accountability," Horne said. "I don't feel as if I should judge anyone."

Some church watch groups say it was Law's ambition that caused him to cover up the abuse. Law was Harvard-educated and came to Boston after being quickly named bishop in Missouri. He was known as a civil rights advocate in the south, and here in Boston, many praised him for working with the Jewish community.

"Cardinal Law is truly a Shakespearean figure — vaulting ambition, great talent, but fatal flaws when it counted," said Peter Borre, a canonical advocate who represents parishioner groups in Rome. "I suspect the last 10 or 12 years of his life must have been a living hell, which some people might say is well-deserved."

"Cardinal Law is truly a Shakespearean figure -- vaulting ambition, great talent, but fatal flaws when it counted."

 Peter Borre, a canonical advocate

Attorney Eric MacLeish represented hundreds of clergy abuse victims in Boston from 2002 to 2004 and spent nine days taking Law's deposition in the scandal.

"He was one of the most powerful people — if not the most powerful person in our state," MacLeish said. "Yet, he chose child molesters over innocent children."

But one positive to come from the scandal, MacLeish said, is that laws have changed: churches are mandated to report suspected abuse to law enforcement. That's a legal shift that could have resulted in graver consequences had they occurred while Law was in charge.

"He really should have been in prison. That's where he belonged," said MacLeish. "The carnage he just wreaked on this community was absolutely astronomical. So a lot of mixed feelings out there, but a lot of condemnation of a man who ... was on the track to become the first American Pope."

Many believe the real turning point in Law's tenure in Boston came from within the ranks of the priesthood. Initially, Law rejected calls to step down and minimized the extent of the church's problem. But after hundreds more stories of abuse surfaced, 58 priests signed a letter calling on Law to resign.

The letter said Law's public statements about the scandal were not credible, and he could no longer provide the necessary spiritual leadership for the church.

One of those priests, Bob Bowers, stepped down from active ministry 10 years ago.

"I think there was a moral imperative at the time to speak for the people who couldn't speak for themselves," Bowers said, "... folks who had been so harmed by the leadership, and the Cardinal's leadership was such a failure in addressing their needs."

Bowers — and several others — say the Catholic church still needs to do more. Terry McKiernan founded the group BishopAccountability.org after the scandal broke in Boston.

"There's an awful lot of work to be done," McKiernan said. "This feels like some kind of conclusion, but it's actually simply only part of the beginning of what we have to do to fix this problem that Cardinal Law is such a glaring example of."

McKiernan maintains a database of U.S. priests who've been accused of abuse. That list now includes 4,300 priests.

This report comes from the New England News Collaborative: Eight public media companies, including Rhode Island Public Radio, coming together to tell the story of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.