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Reflecting On The Life Of Disgraced Cardinal Bernard Law


The disgraced former archbishop of Boston died early today according to the Vatican. Cardinal Bernard Law was 86. He was a central figure in the massive scandal around the Catholic Church's protection of priests known to be sexually abusing children. Sacha Pfeiffer is a member of The Boston Globe investigative Spotlight unit that brought the scandal to national attention, and she joins me now. Welcome to the program.

SACHA PFEIFFER: Thanks for having me.

SUAREZ: People who aren't Catholics or aren't from the Northeast or New England might not understand Cardinal Law's stature. In his day, what did it mean to be the archbishop of Boston?

PFEIFFER: It was an enormous honor. It was enormously prestigious, you know, particularly in the '50s and the '60s and the '70s in a place like Boston. The Catholic Church was so powerful, so influential, and he led that organization, and he was revered. And there were such enormous hopes for him when he came. So he really held an enormous - had enormous stature in the city.

SUAREZ: Had he been in charge in Boston for long? How did he rise to become a prince of the church?

PFEIFFER: He rocketed so quickly through the church hierarchy. He had been educated at Harvard. He was named a bishop when he was just 41, which was very young. He was a Vatican loyalist, but he also was a promoter of social justice. You know, he advocated for public housing and reached out to immigrant communities. He was fluent in Spanish. So he was really viewed as the perfect leader for this powerful institution.

SUAREZ: What did The Globe's reporting uncover about the cardinal's time at the helm?

PFEIFFER: We found that the church had this epidemic of priests who had sexually abused children. But our reporting wasn't just about abusive priests. It was about church officials who covered up for abusive priests. And under Law's leadership, priests who abused kids were transferred from one parish to another where they often went on to abuse kids again. When parents - distraught parents - would come to the church to the archdiocese and complain, they were often asked to sign secret settlements and given payout money that some people later felt was almost like blood money. They were told don't talk about this. Let's not embarrass the church. And Law knew that, and the devastation that inflicted on victims is hard to overstate.

SUAREZ: Did Cardinal Law ever face any charges, ever face any accountability in Boston for what he had done?

PFEIFFER: He did lose his job, but it took a year for that to happen. Our reporting began in January 2002. In December 2002, almost a year later, he resigned. For a while, he was at a convent in Maryland. But then in 2004, Pope John Paul II appointed him an archpriest, a high priest, of a prominent church in Rome. It was called the St. Mary Major Basilica. And the job was ceremonial mostly but very prestigious, and many victims view that as a promotion. And it clearly signaled that even despite what Bernard Law had done, the Vatican still held him in high regard.

SUAREZ: If I remember correctly, he was about to be deposed by the district attorney's office in Boston. The noose was starting to tighten a little bit, and he just left the country.

PFEIFFER: He was deposed by a number of civil attorneys who were representing victims, but never were criminal charges brought. There was talk of whether maybe there could be racketeering charges, but ultimately, he escaped criminal prosecution. And many people feel that he really was never held accountable enough for what he did. And, you know, he repeatedly insisted that he had never tried to shift the problem from one place to another. But I think very clearly he did and for reasons that I still don't think I entirely understand, he was primarily concerned with protecting the church, protecting the priests. And I think he minimized the impact on the victims and the families.

SUAREZ: What did it tell you that instead of being stuffed into some back office somewhere in Vatican City he was made the archpriest of a pontifical basilica - as you mention, a tremendous honor. The Church of Santa Maria Maggiore is one of the pope's own churches in Rome. Did this send a message that they didn't think that he was damaged goods?

PFEIFFER: It certainly seems to have, and I think to this day I'm not quite sure that the Vatican, the Catholic Church, the individual priests within the church, really understand the impact of clergy sex abuse. Keep in mind that this is often the very first sexual experience these kids ever had. They were often little boys. It was not only an adult but a priest who was so revered. And it made it difficult for them ever to have stable relationships again, often - especially intimate ones. It's so typical for there to be stories of depression and drug use and alcoholism and anger. And I don't know if the church understands that it was more than just a harmless misbehavior by their priest.

SUAREZ: Sacha Pfeiffer of The Boston Globe's investigative Spotlight unit. Sacha, thanks a lot.

PFEIFFER: Thank you very much.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: A previous version of the headline misidentified the cardinal. It should have said Bernard Law, not Bernard Shaw.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: December 20, 2017 at 9:00 PM PST
A previous headline incorrectly gave Cardinal Bernard Law's last name as Shaw.