For a time in 2002, Cardinal Bernard Law’s name was in the news almost daily, as revelations of sexual abuse by priests of the Boston archdiocese were revealed one after another. His name moved to the forefront with accusations, then documentation, of a pattern of moving abusive priests from one parish to another surfaced. At the time, it was hard to believe that someone in authority could have had so little disregard for the well-being of children. Sadly, the pattern and the revelations are less surprising today in the aftermath of similar reports from dioceses around the United States, the Murphy report and subsequent revelations of sexual abuse in Ireland, and the still-developing news of 100 cases of abuse reported in Italy in the last 10 years. In fact, I had not thought much about Cardinal Law in the seven years since he resigned as Archbishop of Boston.
On Sunday, we went to visit the Papal Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome. As we arrived, we heard drums beating, and saw a procession of Catholics from the Philippines making their way to the Church: they were celebrating a feast day of the national church. Soon music filled the basilica as whole families crowded in; people prayed the rosary and sang Marian hymns. Then we could detect the aroma of incense, saw a group of altar servers, priests and deacons – and I heard that Cardinal Law, now Archpriest of St. Mary Major, would be the celebrant for this Mass. All the memories came flooding back.
Cardinal Law looks older now – certainly to be expected – and tired. His name still appears in the news, usually as the comparison for another archbishop or cardinal involved in a sex abuse scandal. His work in the Civil Rights Movement and ecumenical efforts have been swallowed up by this one story. Many would say this is justice, that the lives of the unnecessary victims of priests who were transferred has, in many cases, been entirely swallowed up by their experience of abuse. Watching the man on Sunday, all I can see is tragedy. Not his tragedy, but the overall tragedy in which the victims, the church hierarchy, the many good priests and religious, every Catholic with any awareness of the situation is involved. The mark of tragedy is a situation of pain which could have been prevented – usually if one of the tragic actors had known more or done something differently – but the result of the action now rises up to consume him and others around him.
When I saw Cardinal Law, I did not have any particular upsurge of emotion about him. But my deep and abiding sense of the immensity of the tragedy certainly came to the forefront.
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