Cardinal Bernard Law, RIP: seeking a balanced perspective

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Dec 21, 2017

The late Cardinal Bernard Law was not the ogre that his many detractors make him out to be. It is appalling to see abuse victims celebrating his death and cursing his memory, with the gleeful encouragement of the Boston media.

Nor was he the stalwart Church leader his remaining defenders would like to remember. It is edifying, in a way, to see the valiant efforts to revive his tattered reputation. But it is a hopeless cause. Cardinal Law was demonstrably guilty of, at least, gross negligence and dishonesty (probably including perjury) in his handling of the sex-abuse crisis. He presided over a corrupt archdiocese.

But the corruption in Boston was not unique, and what Cardinal Law did (or failed to do) was not markedly different from what was done by dozens of other American bishops. He became the poster boy for the sex-abuse scandal in the US, because of the relentless investigative reporting of the Boston Globe. But he was not the cause of the scandal—which was simmering, unnoticed, long before he arrived in Boston.

Cardinal Law is now beyond the reach of his accusers. And his friends, at this point, could do him more good by praying for his soul than by attempting to defend the indefensible.

My further reflections on Cardinal Law’s death are available now on the First Things site. For a fuller account of the tragedy in Boston, and how it reflected a grave problem throughout the American Catholic Church, see my book, The Faithful Departed—described by the late Father Richard John Neuhaus as “the best book-length treatment of the sex-abuse crisis, its origins and larger implications, published to date.”

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: FredC - Dec. 23, 2017 12:42 PM ET USA

    At the time of the abuses, psychologists were saying that their treatments were successful so that sexual predators had been "cured". Cardinal Law and the many others should be suing the psychologists.

  • Posted by: [email protected] - Dec. 22, 2017 9:46 PM ET USA

    Pray for his soul but do not try to excuse his transgressions. He was not a good Church leader. He did lots of damage. Not as bad as Mahoney of LA but fast approaching for his coverups.

  • Posted by: shrink - Dec. 21, 2017 5:03 PM ET USA

    All of the venom that has been spit upon the grave of Cdl Law could find no more deserving resting place than at the feet of one Roger Cardinal Mahony, the Los Angeles prelate who was the major league player of players when it came to protecting priest abusers. Cdl Law had two huge strikes against him, one being that he was grossly negligant, but also he was something of a conservative. Mahoney was a liberal darling, a feature that no doubt protected him from more pointed and sustained attacks.

  • Posted by: feedback - Dec. 21, 2017 3:26 PM ET USA

    I would question the rationale behind letting dioceses become extra-extra large: Boston, Chicago, LA, NY etc. Even wise and holy Bishops, like Cardinal George, are not able to control them personally and eliminate the sources of sinful corruption. On the other hand, great things are happening in small dioceses run by good and holy Bishops.