Survivors of clergy sexual abuse reacted Thursday with outrage after the Catholic Church honored disgraced former Boston Archbishop Bernard Law with a full cardinal’s funeral, despite his role in a major coverup from which the church is still reeling. Law died Wednesday at age 86.
Law was honored with the standard funeral Mass of cardinals who live at the Vatican, as he did. The ceremony did not include mention of his role in the Boston archdiocese scandals that spanned decades. Pope Francis led a short benediction at the service.
When Law was archbishop of Boston, he became a central figure in the U.S. Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal. He oversaw the archdiocese as it moved dozens of abusive priests among parishes without telling police. After resigning in 2002, he moved to Italy to serve as archpriest at the papal basilica of Saint Mary Major in 2004. He apologized to abuse survivors, but he never faced criminal charges.
Giving Law the same kind of funeral as other cardinals was deeply offensive to some people who wanted to see him held accountable, said Ann Hagan Webb, a sexual abuse survivor who lives in Boston.
“Pope Francis talks a good game, but he never comes through. He talks about caring about survivors, but he really doesn’t,” Webb said. “He makes these grand announcements and everyone thinks he’s progressive, but when it comes to this issue, over and over again he has not lived up to his promises.”
Callista Gingrich, President Trump’s pick for U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, and her husband, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, attended Thursday’s Mass. Pope Francis offered final prayers in the ritual. However, many survivors like Webb believe that Law should not have been given the funeral privileges afforded to other church leaders.
“He was an evil, narcissistic man,” said Jim Scanlan, a Boston abuse survivor who says he was raped by a Jesuit priest who was a hockey coach at his high school. “The entire time he blamed it on things other than himself.”
Reporting on the church’s scandal by The Boston Globe was featured in the Oscar-winning film “Spotlight,” which came out in 2015. Scanlan was portrayed as the fictitious “Kevin from Providence,” who suffered sexual abuse by a Boston College High School priest.
“When I saw his death, my feeling was ‘good riddance,’” Scanlan said. “It’s disgusting to have him buried as a cardinal when he should’ve been disgraced in jail.”
Many Boston-based survivors saw the treatment of Law’s death by the Vatican as a “slap in the face,” said abuse survivor Phil Saviano, whose whistleblowing story was portrayed in “Spotlight.”
“I’ve been trying to ponder what is the message the Vatican is sending with this kind of funeral,” Saviano said. “It just reopened old wounds and brought back old memories.”
The events surrounding Law’s death come as the Catholic Church continues to face scrutiny over how it fights sexual abuse. Advocacy groups have called for sweeping changes within the Vatican hierarchy.
Since the sexual abuse scandal exploded globally, the Catholic Church has put elaborate systems in place in some countries like the United States to protect children. After he was appointed to the papacy, Francis created a reform commission charged with addressing sexual abuse. This year, Marie Collins, an Irish survivor of clergy sexual abuse, quit the commission because she said she felt the changes commission members had recommended were not being enacted. The commission itself has lapsed after the terms of members expired earlier this month, and no new members have been appointed.
“What’s said and what’s done are two different things,” Collins said. “I don’t see anything changing, and I don’t see any hope for change at this point.”
Once the Vatican allowed Law to become an archpriest of a Roman basilica, even though he was not at the usual retirement age, they had to follow the protocol they would give any cardinal living in Rome, said Phil Lawler of Catholic World News.
“Giving him a job which did carry that prestige was an indication of serious tone deafness,” Lawler said. He noted that Pope Francis’s statement about Law’s death did not cite Law’s involvement in the sexual abuse scandal, but it also didn’t praise him as statements about cardinals usually do.
Some especially criticized the decision to have the Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, one of the most famous churches in the world.
“Every Catholic deserves a funeral Mass, but not every Catholic warrants a funeral Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica,” James Martin, a popular Jesuit priest, tweeted. Following protocol, Martin said, “is a stupefyingly obtuse symbol, which undercuts the church’s mission to hold bishops accountable for their actions, particularly regarding the abuse of children.”
Some believe the pope was in a tricky spot. If he did not hold the funeral in St. Peter’s, he could have risked drawing even more attention to Law’s life and death, said Nick Cafardi, dean emeritus and professor of law at Duquesne University. When Francis once visited Saint Mary Major, no pictures of Law with the pope were shown, a departure from protocol.
“I don’t think it was high treatment in the Vatican,” said Cafardi, who was former chair of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Youth. “The question is, did [Law] really show contrition for what he did?”
Before he took a position in Rome, Cafardi said, Law was supposed to become a chaplain to nuns, which would have been seen as a humbler position and much more appropriate.
Law’s death comes amid a high-profile sexual abuse case in Australia. Earlier this year, Cardinal George Pell, one of the most powerful officials in the Vatican, was sent back to Australia amid charges in his home country of his involvement in an abuse scandal going back decades. The cardinal, who denies the charges, is the highest-ranking Catholic official to be charged with sexual abuse.
Law’s successor in Boston, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, apologized at a news conference Wednesday for the Catholic Church’s past failings over sex abuse by clergy, saying Law’s death opened “a lot of old wounds and caused much anger and pain” for survivors. O’Malley said it’s unfortunate Law had such a high-profile appointment in Rome and that someone in his position would not receive a similar appointment today.
“Christmas is about healing relationships and forgiveness,” O’Malley said. “A big part of healing is being able to come to grips with our own difficulty in forgiveness.”
The archdiocese of Boston has no plans for a Mass or memorial for Law.