A Cardinal Sin

After scandal, Law no longer possesses the moral authority to guide Boston Catholics

Late on Monday night the Archdiocese of Boston reached a financial settlement with 86 people who claimed to have been molested by Fr. John J. Geoghan. Geoghan has subsequently been both defrocked and imprisoned, but the suffering for these people has continued unabated. The Church hopes that the settlement—which may total up to $30 million—may at last bring closure to the embarrassing affair. A meaningful resolution for the victims of these appalling crimes will only come with the removal of Cardinal Bernard F. Law ’53 as archbishop of greater Boston.

Law has acted irresponsibly by reassigning Geoghan—and, perhaps, many other priests—despite knowledge of his history of pedophilia. The impression that Law did not work hard enough to avoid the possibility of future attacks on innocent children has fueled local anger and has resulted in a groundswell of opinion against him. According to a Boston Globe poll, 48 percent of Catholics in the area favor Law’s resignation, whereas only 38 percent want him to stay.

Certainly, no one would argue that Law is solely to blame for the scandal that is engulfing the Catholic Church nationwide. Nevertheless, as archbishop of Boston, he must accept his share of the responsibility for the inappropriate way the Church handled the situation locally. Psychiatrists may well have given misleading advice when they claimed that Geoghan was unlikely to repeat his offenses, but the ultimate decision to reassign Geoghan to areas where he would come into contact with children was Law’s.

Law was also offensively tardy to apologize on behalf of the Church to the victims and their families. In spite of his repeated recent apologies, one cannot help but think that he is only doing so in a desperate attempt to save his own career. Such apparent callousness has no place in a religious order, let alone in its senior clergy. Law now finds himself significantly weakened not only in political support but also in moral authority; he should resign immediately for the sake of the Church he professes to love.

A few positive steps have been taken on the long road to eradicating pedophilia in the Church. A commission has been created, consisting of the district attorney and a variety of child psychologists, to submit recommendations to the chancery on how to deal with future allegations of abuse. Further substantive supervision—by the state as well as the Catholic Church—will help to reduce threats to children. All such measures are worthy of support, as no cause is more important than the protection of children from sinister pedophiles. Meanwhile, any priests who feel content to ignore both the Biblical precepts and legal injunctions against child abuse should be held accountable to both canon and common law.


Child abuse is, of course, not limited to the Catholic Church. Indeed, many studies have suggested that rates of abuse are just as high outside the Church as within it. Nonetheless, the Church is in a special position because of its claim to offer moral leadership. In the wake of his inappropriate response to the Geoghan scandal, Cardinal Law’s claims to offer such guidance have been fatally undermined. His swift departure would benefit all involved, and begin the healing process for both the victims and the Boston Archdiocese.

Dissent: The Good Shepherd

In calling for the resignation of Cardinal Bernard F. Law ’53, the Staff falls into the same tired track that dozens of other media outlets have taken during the last few weeks: scapegoating Law as a martyr for the problems that have arisen for a faulty system. The Staff itself even recognizes that the choices the cardinal made were the result of conflicting pressures and information. He weighed contradictory information and made a judgement about Geoghan, a choice that, although tragically wrong, was in no way designed to harm anyone.

The Staff further faults the cardinal for not apologizing fast enough, but more important than the apology itself, Law has taken action to prevent these systemic problems from happening again. Not only has he been in full cooperation with secular officials, but he also effectively volunteered more information than would even be warranted under Massachusetts statutes of limitation. Law has suspended every priest who has ever come under a hint of suspicion over the past 30 years, even at the risk of being accused of a “witch hunt” by some Catholics, as was the case with Fr. D. George Spagnolia earlier this month. Law discarded the program for his meeting with 3,000 lay Catholic leaders this week, and instead took the time to simply listen to the faithful, hear their concerns, and let them vent their frustrations to him. On Saturday the Cardinal’s Commission for the Protection of Children, to which several national experts—including Harvard Medical School’s own Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry Donna M. Norris and Professor of Psychiatry Edwin H. Cassem—have been named, will meet to plan a sweeping new approach to combating abuse in the Archdiocese.

Despite these moves, the Staff seeks to solve problems by having secular authority further encroach upon the Church, leading to more conflation of church and state. Obviously clerics must abide by the same laws as regular citizens, but they should not be subjected to extra scrutiny by public agencies simply because they have pledged their lives to their faith. Additionally, canon law itself fully decries sexual abuse. Better enforcement of canonical regulation, and not the interjection of secularization, should be the next step, and Cardinal Law understands this.

Leadership requires that the cardinal stay on the job and lead the faithful through such a trying time. No amount of misplaced protest will fix the archdiocese’s serious problems—only Law can do that now.

Ronaldo Rauseo-Ricupero '04 and Paul C. Schultz '03