Prequel to Spotlight: Cardinal Law 1.0

Prequel to Spotlight – Cardinal Law 1.0

 Summary  As the old saying goes, victory has a hundred fathers but defeat is an orphan. In the aftermath of the two Oscars won by Spotlight for Best Film and Best original Screenplay, many of the picture’s heroes are emerging for their deserved moment in the sun.

Internationally, the official daily of the Vatican – the redoubtable Osservatore Romano – now describes the movie as “not anti-Catholic” and something that gives voice to “the shock and profound pain of the faithful confronting the discovery of these horrendous realities.”

Oh my how the music from Rome has changed, but meglio tardi che mai (better late than never).

The basso profondo undertone of this story is the enigmatic figure of Boston’s cardinal, Bernard Francis Law, who has been beyond the reach of civil and criminal authorities since December of 2002. IMO he is something of a Shakespearean figure, a protagonist with great talents and flaws. Before essential aspects of the Boston abuse scandal get lost in the Oscars’ after-glow, it is worth recalling the context that pre-dated the eruption of the Spotlight team’s story in January, 2002. I offer some observations below on unmistakable signals going back to the 1980s – that there was a problem of clergy abuse of minors; and on some key events in the pre-scandal career of Cardinal Bernard Law.

Early Signals in the mid-1980s  One of the unsung heroes in this drama who did not get a role in Spotlight is the remarkable Tom Doyle. In an account he circulated a few days ago, he goes back three decades to when he served as a monsignore in the mid-80s at the Vatican Embassy in D.C. This kind of assignment put Monsignor Doyle into a very elite category, particularly since it had taken about two centuries for the U.S. and the Holy See to establish full diplomatic relations – from the beginning of George Washington’s first term until the end of Ronald Reagan’s first term.

To summarize Doyle’s fascinating account, by the mid-80s the Vatican Embassy (aka the Apostolic Nunciature) was receiving highly confidential reports from some U.S. bishops sounding the alarm about clergy abuse. Given the invisible walls separating the 175 Catholic dioceses in America (‘stovepiping’ in Washington-speak), the Vatican Embassy was the only entity with a wide-angle view of what was brewing in Catholic America. And Doyle was responsible for handling these issues.

He grasped quickly the systemic nature of the abuse problem, and after careful analysis he and two colleagues put together a recommended solution that even by today’s 20/20 hindsight was a sensible and compassionate response. Early on there was reason to believe that the association of Catholic prelates, now known as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, would get in front of the problem pro-actively, so Doyle and colleagues drafted a comprehensive manual recommending best practices, ready to be presented to the American episcopate.

But nothing happened….business as usual in the 175 dioceses.

What did happen behind the scenes was that ranking members of the U.S. Catholic hierarchy did not want to ratify a solution to a problem they were reluctant to acknowledge. And yet, one of the rising stars among the bishops, Boston’s then-Archbishop Law, seemed ready to endorse the initiative, and to give it much-needed support among the bishops. But then…according to Doyle, “Cardinal Law and I spoke a few times…and he assured me it was beyond his control, which I believed then and still believe.

Tom Doyle’s article of March 1 is at  Then open the link to BEFORE SPOTLIGHT

The irony is that the American prelate most directly involved in the eventual scandal might have been – instead – one of the scandal’s leading heroes. Which brings us to Bernard Law’s unusual Church career.

Law’s Clerical Career  Born in Mexico where his father was running an airline after WWI service as a pilot in the Army Signal Corps, young Law acquired a world-view broader than the typical seminarians of the 1950s who usually came of age within the diocese they would serve as priests. He enrolled at Harvard, graduating in 1953 and concentrating in medieval history, which in the Vatican is probably classified as current affairs.

While a Harvard undergrad, he was president of the Newman Club (the WiFi hot spot for Catholic students in that Godless environment) and his nickname – according to a classmate – was Your Holiness, “reflecting his evident papal ambitions.” From college he went into the seminary, and was eventually ordained almost at age 30 – somewhat late by the clerical norm.

His first assignment was as a parochial vicar (assistant pastor) in the Diocese of Natchez-Jackson, deep down in the impoverished Delta; not exactly a trophy parish area such as NYC’s Upper East Side or Boston’s Chestnut Hill. As a young priest Bernard Law was a genuine civil rights activist, and received the death threats that went with that territory during the early 1960s for his fearless articles while editor of the diocesan weekly. Fast-forwarding the years, his talents were recognized and he rose rapidly, working in Washington as director of a bishops’ committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, and eventually rising to ecclesiastical flag rank when he was named Bishop of Springfield and Cape Girardeau in 1973 at the early age 42.

In 1984 – then in his early 50s and an outsider to the Boston area – he was the surprise selection as Archbishop of Boston, one of the crown jewels of Catholic America which carries with it rapid promotion to the personal rank of cardinal – i.e. a prince of the Church and a papal elector. Not long afterwards that he emerged as dynamic spokesman for Catholic America, and a crucial link between the U.S. government and the Holy See. It is no coincidence that with full bilateral diplomatic relations established in 1984, the fiercely anti-Soviet heads of these two States, one on the Potomac and the other on the Tiber, found it convenient to cooperate. Which they did. But it was vital to have a trusted go-between.

The story of the money flows from the American intel community, through (sigh) the Vatican bank and then into a grassroots network of Catholic parishes in Poland, has been told. But not much has been written about the Catholic mafia in the Reagan administration: Secretary of State Al Haig; national security advisers Dick Allen and Bill Clark; Director of Central Intelligence Bill Casey; Director of Defense Intelligence Agency Dick Walters; etc., etc. These were not tepid believers. And there was an Evil Empire to be brought down. But someone had to manage the bumps along the road, given the inevitable (and not totally bogus) Soviet complaints of provokatsya, as well as transactional frictions in moving funds through the (sigh) Vatican bank during the troubled years of the Banco Ambrosiano money-laundering scandal.

Yet during that period another kind of evil reality kept intruding in the U.S.: The first clergy sex abuse scandal to get extensive media coverage erupted in Cajun country, the Fr. Gilbert Gauthe case in Lafayette, around 1984. In due course this played itself out. However, some years later the notorious Fr. James Porter case detonated. Porter was eventually accused of abuse by close to 100 victims and did time. The national media were in full outcry over him, including a cameo of Porter running away from a Diane Sawyer ABC film crew. By 1992 Cardinal Law concluded the media had gone overboard, and although his own diocese was not in the cross-hairs, at a Boston antiviolence event he thundered from the pulpit of St. Patrick’s Church in Roxbury:

“…we call down God’s power on the media, particularly the [Boston] Globe.”

Perhaps the vehemence of Law’s fatwa had something to do with what Tom Doyle had brought to his attention in the mid-1980s. Perhaps this was an effort by Law to put the abuse genie back in the bottle.

But somewhere along the way the idealistic young priest in the Mississippi Delta had changed. Only a candid memoir would give us the whole story, but that ain’t likely. The most interesting judgment about the cardinal’s career was delivered by Law himself when he was posing for an oil portrait during his glory days in Boston.

The artist asked him, “What is the toughest part of your job?”

The cardinal replied, “Judgment – the decisions I must make. That is the half of it. The other half is the judgment I must face one day myself.”

That day may nearer to hand than the cardinal might have expected. Or maybe it has passed.

Coda Today in Rome another prince of the church is in the hot glare of the media: Australian Cardinal George Pell who is being deposed by Australia’s Royal Government Commission investigating Pell’s conduct in the national scandal over clergy sex abuse. Depending on which vaticanista you talk to, Pell is either #3 in the hierarchy, or perhaps #2 (nosing out the Secretary of State because of Pell’s iron control over Vatican finances).

As reported in The Global Pulse this week, when summoned by the commission, the Rome-based cardinal pleaded that ill-health prevented him from traveling to Oz. So instead, the commission is deposing him by video link while he remains in Rome. According to Global Pulse, this might have been “a deliberate attempt to make things more complicated”, but if so, it “backfired spectacularly…the cardinal has brought the trial-like atmosphere into the pope’s backyard and commanded huge media interest” even within the jaded Vatican press corps.”

The boomerang is indeed an Aussie invention.

Reflecting on the twilight of the careers of these two famous cardinals, it is easy enough to quote Lord Acton’s famous dictum on the corrupting effect of power. What is less widely known is what Lord Acton added to this:

There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”

Acton was commenting on the papal dogma of infallibility, pronounced by Pius IX and ratified by the Vatican I Council in 1870 during the last days of the Papal States. With fallible princes coming into the spotlight today, maybe Vatican I that should be revisited since Vatican II has been dismantled so effectively over the past half century




1 thought on “Prequel to Spotlight: Cardinal Law 1.0

  1. Thanks for this great summary, Peter. I will pass it along to many friends and family “aroused” by the film Spotlight, who are just now asking questions and eager for information.

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