Death of disgraced cardinal reveals truth we’d rather ignore

By Melinda Henneberger - Contributing Columnist

Twelve years ago, after the death of Pope John Paul II, I watched a man who will go down in history as a fierce protector of child rapists process into St. Peter’s to celebrate one of the nine masses that traditionally follow the death of a pontiff.

On that day, Cardinal Bernard Law, who died recently at 86, had already resigned in disgrace from his post as archbishop of Boston. He’d lost his stroke with the White House, too, after the Boston Globe revealed the full extent of the clerical sex abuse scandal that Law’s cover-up had both delayed and compounded.

In exile in Rome, Law was a pariah but also a man who retained some vestiges of power, especially on the key committee that helps choose bishops; if Catholics didn’t invent having it both ways, we certainly have long experience in it.

On the day in 2005 that Law eulogized his own protector, John Paul, I wrote that he should have stayed home instead of showing up as he did, surrounded by a security detail that treated the two American survivors of clerical abuse who’d come to peacefully protest outside the basilica as if they were the criminals.

Initially, I felt that Law’s Thursday funeral mass should not have been celebrated in St. Peter’s, either, by yet another predator coddler, Cardinal Angelo Sodano. And what did Pope Francis think he was doing, offering the closing prayer?

But perhaps I was wrong to write of Law’s memorial mass for John Paul that “the whole spectacle of the disgraced cardinal slinging incense was almost too baroque to bear.”

Because painful as it was to watch, the sight of the bloated, visibly broken Law made remembering the worst of John Paul’s legacy inescapable.

At the height of the 2002 American clerical sex abuse scandal, when I was covering the Vatican for the New York Times, a friend of John Paul’s described him to me as an old man with the innocence of a child — someone who literally found it difficult to believe the accusations.

But the refusal to acknowledge evil is not a virtue, as the former Karol Wojtyla, whose conscience was formed against the backdrop of the Nazis and then the Soviets, knew better than anyone.

Giving Law, in death, the full treatment at St. Peter’s, where “an unusually small congregation of mourners” turned out for his funeral, according to the Catholic news outlet Crux, does show the mercy that the church has not always doled out evenly. But it also reveals a truth we’d rather ignore.

And suggests that even now, even under the pastoral Francis, whose actions in taking on abusers have not lived up to his rhetoric, the hierarchy doesn’t yet fully understand the damage done. Or the cost of showing too much compassion for priests, and too little for children. Isn’t that how we got here?

That Sodano was able to stand in front of God and the world and say that cardinals make mistakes, too — we know! — shows how far the institution still has to go.

From the press box high above Bernini’s Baldacchino at Law’s mass for John Paul, I noticed for the first time a sculpture you can’t see very well from ground level, of St. John Bosco, protector of children, whispering a warning to two young ones, and pointing accusingly toward the altar where Law was officiating that day.

So maybe it’s only right that that’s where Law was eulogized, with St. John Bosco watching and whispering still. Or shouting, if only we could hear him.

In many ways, Law was a scapegoat for other prelates. Not because Law wasn’t guilty but because they were, too. And though Law was not himself sexually abusive, his compulsion to cover up for those who were makes him a clerical forerunner of some of the men recently driven from secular jobs over allegations of sexual harassment.

After Law’s fall, the church did change, and children are far safer now. But church fathers are not much more accountable.

And after all this time, I’m sorry to say that if leaders in entertainment, politics and media want to make women and men safer in the work place and change a culture that shrugged off accounts of abuse, they will only be able to look to the Catholic Church for a model of what not to do.


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By Melinda Henneberger

Contributing Columnist

Melinda Henneberger is an editorial writer and columnist for the Kansas City Star, and a member of the board of contributors at USA TODAY.

Melinda Henneberger is an editorial writer and columnist for the Kansas City Star, and a member of the board of contributors at USA TODAY.