Skip to main content

On Tuesday the world lost one of the most vile men ever to don a zucchetto. The former Archbishop of Boston, Bernard Law died old and disgraced in the Vatican of whatever it is that once powerful enablers of child rape on a mass scale die of. Law's continued freedom was a scandal of the first order – one that has now been rectified permanently by his overdue expiration.

Law's downfall came in 2002 when the Boston Globe published a series of explosive reports showing he had repeatedly ignored and obscured the sexual abuse of children by clergymen under his authority. In some cases, instead of reporting the abuse to police or ensuring that offending priests had no pastoral contact with children, Law simply transferred the pedophiles to new parishes where they continued to rape.

Law was a hardly a pioneer on this front. In the 1970s his immediate predecessor Humberto Medeiros, whose reputation has been insufficiently tarnished by the abuse scandal, had already twice re-assigned a troubled priest named John Geoghan, who had been accused by several parents of molesting their children. At one point Geoghan admitted to Church authorities that he had molested seven boys. He was placed on leave and ordered to seek treatment. Thus, by the time Law became Archbishop in 1984, Geoghan was known to be a serial pedophile by Church officials, having admitted to, or been accused of, molesting children at four different parishes dating back to the 1960s.

Upon informing Geoghan of his removal from a parish in Dorchester, Mass. where he had multiple molestation accusations presented against him, Law sent Geoghan a reassuring letter telling the rapist that he was considered “in between assignments.” Sure enough, Law then sent him to a parish in the quiet town of Weston where he continued molest boys. In 2002, Geoghan was convicted of sexually assaulting some of the 130 boys he had been accused of violating over the years. He was murdered in prison in 2003. The Church agreed to a $10 million class action settlement with 86 of Geoghan’s victims.

When it came to dealing with pedophiles in their ranks, Geoghan's case wasn't the exception, but the modus operandi of the Boston Archdiocese and Law for at least two decades: receive credible allegations if not outright proof of child rape at the hands of a priest; put the priest on leave; then re-assign the priest to an unsuspecting parish a good distance away where parishioners would not be informed of the danger. And if fresh allegations arose in the new parish the process would be repeated, though in particularly egregious cases the offender would be allowed to retire quietly. 

In another instance, Rev. Daniel Graham admitted in 1988 to molesting a boy 20 years prior. He was allowed to resume his duties at his church in Quincy. The archdiocese’s review board subsequently recommended in 1995 that Graham cease performing ministerial duties, but the board reversed itself. Law then appointed Graham vicar of several churches. As was typical, parishioners were not told of the risk the clergyman posed to children.

Yet another egregious disregard for children’s welfare occurred in the case of Rev. Eugene O’Sullivan, who pleaded guilty in 1984 to molesting an altar boy. Church officials requested that he avoid prison time, which he did. O’Sullivan was sentenced to five years of probation. The next year, Law had him transferred to a parish in New Jersey.

Law’s treatment of Rev. Robert Meffan was also instructive. Meffan had molested several teenage girls. Not only did he admit to this fact, but he called these assaults “beautiful, spiritual” experiences. 

"What I was trying to show them is that Christ is human and you should love him as a human being,'' Meffan told the Globe in 2002. “That's what I was trying to point out to them. I felt that by having this little bit of intimacy with them that this is what it would be like with Christ.''

Law knew Meffan to be a pedophile. Three women had come forward in the late 1980s and early 1990s saying Meffan had assaulted them. In 1993 he was placed on leave and retired in 1996, at which time he received a warm letter of farewell from Law.

Similar grotesqueries played out in the cases of Revs. Paul Shanley, Robert MorrissetteThomas Forry, and Ronald Paquin, whom Law reassigned to a hospital chaplainship despite 13 prior complaints of molestation against him. Predictably, more allegations arose against Paquin at the hospital. 

There is an obvious theme here – namely that Bernard Law would not let numerous cases of child rape become a scandal. And that’s not hyperbole. It’s what Law himself said plainly during a deposition in 2002 after his archdiocese had been exposed as a safe house for pedophiles. Asked by an attorney if there were considerations beyond the protection of children that motivated his actions, Law said, “There have been and there are.”

The attorney replied, ''One of those has been to avoid scandal in the church?''

''That's correct,'' said, Law.

Indeed, the first priority of the Boston archdiocese in these cases was always the protection of the pedophiles at the expense of their victims. Always.  

Four months after that deposition in December 2002, Cardinal Law resigned from his post and flew to Rome where he sought refuge in the Vatican. He was welcomed with open arms and given the role of archpriest at a local cathedral and even cast a vote in the papal conclave of 2005.

Law’s favorable treatment in the Vatican, which did not and does not have an extradition treaty with the United States, was a crime against decency and moreover an indictment of the moral depravity of the Catholic Church.

In 2003 the Massachusetts attorney general issued a report declaring that the disgraced cardinal hadn’t violated any statute because priests weren’t required to report sexual abuse until 2002. That was a dubious conclusion. Law used his status as a man of power to protect other men of power who used it to sexually exploit the most vulnerable members of society. He was a man who did great evil.

Bernard Law may have escaped justice in this life, but if his god were worth any damn at all, the old cardinal would certainly be facing it now.