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Bernard Law and the civil rights legacy he squandered by covering up clergy sex abuse

Cardinal Bernard Law, a key figure in the church abuse scandal, passed away at the age of 86 on Dec. 20. He resigned as Boston's archbishop in 2002. (Video: Reuters)

On March 13, 1964, a tiny diocesan newspaper edited by a young Catholic priest with no prior journalism experience laid out the case for racial desegregation in Mississippi.

The editorial in the Mississippi Register, headlined “Legal Segregation is Dying,” was stunning for its controversial position at the time, particularly in a racially charged state at the center of the American civil rights movement. Only months before, a prominent civil rights leader had been shot in the back and killed.

In 862 words, the editorial’s author — the Rev. Bernard Law — argued that it was critical for the state to begin working immediately toward a “smooth and peaceful desegregation.”

“Mississippi has the leadership, if it can be freed, to push the state forward on many fronts,” Law wrote. “For too long we have been wasting time, talent, effort and money in a senseless, doomed struggle to maintain the corpse of enforced segregation.”

Any notion that sudden change would shatter society was “the construct of the racist,” he added, not mincing words.

Then 32 years old, Law was neither a seasoned politician nor an experienced civil rights activist. He had only a few years earlier moved from Ohio to Mississippi, when he was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Natchez-Jackson. Nevertheless, Law’s words were so powerful that his piece would later win the Catholic Press Association’s editorial of the year award in 1964.

That editorial was just one of many that Law penned while in Mississippi, where he ran the Register for five years and threw himself into civil rights activism. All signed “(BFL),” the editorials tackled a variety of subjects including the Voting Rights Act and the 1967 bombing of a synagogue in Jackson. Law, who was white, became known for his willingness to work with the local African American community and for taking firmly progressive positions on civil rights issues — to the extent that he reportedly received death threats.

But none of that, of course, would be Law’s legacy, although he climbed the ranks of the Catholic Church in part on the strength of his work in the South. Law died Wednesday in Rome at age 86 and is remembered overwhelmingly for his role in helping cover up widespread sexual abuse of children within the Catholic Church by moving abusive priests around from parish to parish. The scandal prompted him to resign as archbishop of Boston in 2002.

Cardinal Bernard Law, Boston archbishop at center of church sex-abuse scandal, dies at 86

The Vatican announced Law’s death Wednesday with little comment about his role in the abuse and coverup scandal. The church also said Law would receive a Vatican funeral Thursday, with a “final commendation” by Pope Francis, plans that angered many of the church’s sexual abuse victims.

For his obituary, the Jesuit publication America magazine described Law as “the face of the church’s failure on child sexual abuse.” Boston Globe journalist Kevin Cullen, who was part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative team that uncovered the pattern of abuse in the church, excoriated Law in a column Wednesday as “one of the greatest enablers of sexual abuse in the history of the world,” comparing him to Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein.

Even at the height of the church scandal, however, many in Mississippi struggled to reconcile Law’s downfall with the work of young priest they remembered fighting for equal rights on their behalf in their state decades earlier. After the 1963 assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Jackson, Law was among the first to visit the Evers family to comfort and pray with them.

“I also personally saw him and the bishop walk in the ashes of a burned black church about 30 or 40 miles away from Jackson in 1964,” the late Bill Minor, a journalist who covered the civil rights movement and later befriended Law, told the Clarion-Ledger in 2002. “He did it because he was concerned about people — all people.”

Law would maintain his outreach with Mississippi’s African American community in ways large and small: The year after the notorious murder, Law joined Evers’s brother, Charles Evers of the NAACP, to help distribute Christmas turkeys to the poor in Jackson, according to a brief article in the Dec. 23, 1964, issue of The Washington Post. (Reached by phone Wednesday morning, Charles Evers, now 95, said he did not remember Law specifically. “We worked with so many people back then,” he added. Medgar Evers’s widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, could not be reached.)

“I’ll always be grateful to him for the great constructive work he did in Mississippi in the 1960s in creating a more satisfactory racial climate in the state,” former Mississippi governor William Winter told the Clarion-Ledger in 2002, after Law resigned. “He actually got me involved in some activities and helped me open up my understanding to some of the issues we were confronted with at that time.”

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By 1973, when Law was appointed bishop of the diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau in Missouri, his imminent departure from Mississippi made the front page of the Clarion-Ledger, where local religious leaders sang his praises.

“Mississippi is a better place because of his zealous labors,” Joseph Brunini, the bishop of Jackson, told the newspaper then. Mack B. Stokes, the American Bishop of the United Methodist Church, said he had known and admired Law for many years and held him “in high esteem.”

For the next decade, Law’s star would continue to rise until, in January 1984, Pope John Paul II appointed Law archbishop of Boston. About two weeks later, Judge Gordon Martin of the Roxbury District Court wrote a glowing guest column for the Boston Globe vouching for Law’s character. They had crossed paths in the early 1960s when Martin was a trial lawyer with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department in Mississippi.

In the piece, Martin highlighted more than half a dozen of Law’s old editorials for the Mississippi Register.

“Fr. Law doubtless would not have won a popularity contest in Mississippi in the Sixties. His coverage of the march at Selma cost the Register subscriptions, but he was true to his faith and his conscience,” Martin wrote of Law in 1984. “Then he was a rising young priest. Today Bishop Law is an established member of the hierarchy, and the same qualities of courage and genuine concern for all people that he demonstrated then should make him an outstanding archbishop of Boston.”

It was on this reputation that Law moved to Boston, which was at the time emerging from its own racial problems related to school desegregation. Even the fact that he had chosen to become a priest in Mississippi was significant, James O’Toole, a history professor at Boston College, told The Post on Wednesday.

“Usually, when somebody becomes a priest, the most likely thing is for them to become a priest in the place where they were originally from,” O’Toole said. Law, who was born in Mexico and frequently moved throughout his childhood because of his pilot father, didn’t have such roots. “Because of his background, especially the civil rights activity, he really came to Boston with a great deal of promise.”

Boston opened ‘Pandora’s box’ of clergy sex abuse worldwide

That promise would eventually crumble.

Law was soon elevated to cardinal and stayed in his role, acquiring great power and influence (among Catholics and generally in the Boston area), for nearly two more decades — until the Boston Globe exposed the extent to which church leaders had kept the child sexual abuse problem from being publicized. A 2003 report by the Massachusetts attorney general’s office was further damning to Law, stating that the cardinal “had direct knowledge of the scope, duration and severity of the crisis experienced by children in the Archdiocese; he participated directly in crucial decisions concerning the assignment of abusive priests, decisions that typically increased the risk to children.”

Law would eventually express remorse in public remarks at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston, just before his resignation in December 2002, as The Post reported:

[Law] said that “the forgiving love of God gives me the courage to beg forgiveness of those who have suffered because of what I did.”
He acknowledged the “devastating effects of this horrible sin” — substance abuse, depression, in some cases suicide — and sought to assuage the sense of shame many victims suffer by assuring them that the perpetrators were to blame. He urged anyone living “with the awful secret of sexual abuse by clergy or by anyone else to come forward so that you may begin to experience healing.”
“No one is helped by keeping such things secret,” he said. “The secret of sexual abuse needs to be brought out of the darkness and into the healing light of Jesus Christ.”

His attempt at contrition would not restore the reputation he had spent years building before Boston.

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“I think the damage was so substantial and serious and evil that I think that really overshadowed everything,” O’Toole said. “The scale of the sex abuse crisis, as we all came to learn it, was just such that everything else had to be seen in that context.”

To this day, O’Toole is hard-pressed to understand why Law and other church leaders handled their knowledge of abusive priests the way they did.

“They were disposed to look at it as a moral problem, as individual cases instead of a bigger problem,” he said. “They would say, ‘Oh, well this is just Father so-and-so. We’ll take care of Father so-and-so and that’ll solve the problem.’ They couldn’t see a larger systemic kind of problem. Some of that obviously was, perhaps, they didn’t want to see it as a problem.”

That Law came up through the ranks of the church in part by passionately addressing one systemic problem — racism — only to utterly fail to address another one is an irony not lost on O’Toole.

“It is at odds with what you would think for someone who had been involved in the civil rights movement,” he said.

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