I didn’t expect this punch in the gut from Pope Francis. But I guess I was naïve. Of course, the pope would say a formal and apparently heartfelt goodbye to Cardinal Bernard Law, the prelate whose reckless disregard for the welfare of children in the Boston archdiocese led to a tragedy that still harms and hurts.
Law died this week at 86. He had resigned in disgrace from his powerful position in Boston and found a cushy berth in Rome. Still able to savor the pomp and perks of that rarest of rare male clubs, the college of cardinals.
Law never really apologized enough for the damage he wrought. But for posterity’s sake, let’s review: After the Boston abuse scandal became front-page news in Boston in 2002, the Globe tallied its initial toll: 500-plus claims of abuse by victims, the prospect of lawsuits seeking an estimated $100 million in damages, and an archdiocese – that had already paid out $40 million – teetering on the verge of bankruptcy.
But those numbers only scratch the surface. We’ll never know how the acid of Law’s betrayal of his flock corroded faith and ruined lives.
And yet, in the face of this untold harm, Pope Francis permitted Law to be buried with all the pomp and circumstance the church affords its powerful prelates, and with a papal blessing:
May he be given a merciful judgment so that redeemed from death, freed from punishment, reconciled to the Father, carried in the arms of the Good Shepherd, he may deserve to enter fully into everlasting happiness in the company of the eternal King together with all the saints.
I’m sorry. I do not think that Law deserves an express train to heaven or the welcoming arms of the Redeemer, who had very harsh words for anyone who harms children.
But Law had one thing going for him: He was a company man. Defend the institution, no matter what. If there’s a scandal, bury it. If there’s a predator, transfer him and hope he stays out of trouble. If questions are asked, lie. If a victim tells you his story, lay your hands on his head as if you’d just heard his confession, and order him never to reveal the secret. This is a church that rewards institutional loyalty above all else. It demands conformity with the laws and rules that reinforce its power.
Pedophilia, as long as it is hidden, doesn’t challenge the clerical status quo. In fact, the whole women-hating band of brothers that comprise too much of the clergy will hang together, no matter what.
But the church has little tolerance for those who challenge the party line, and its views on sexual morality.
If a Catholic is gay and in a loving relationship, the church not only does not recognize the value of that union, in some dioceses, priests are directed to deny that Catholic a church burial.
A brilliant woman theologian who writes a book on sexual ethics that presents a scholarly examination of how to adapt gospel values to our scientific understanding of sexual behavior is not applauded, she’s censured.
A sister who is a hospital administrator and agrees to permit an abortion to save the life of the mother of four is publicly excommunicated. She only is allowed to return to the fold after resigning from her post and seeking forgiveness.
I had thought that this pope might be different, and in some ways, he is. He’s called for more social justice and made protecting the planet a moral obligation. But he’s been tepid when it comes to facing the true repercussions of pedophilia in the church.
Just this month he apparently let his own sex abuse commission lapse, after failing to deliver on its promises, including a pledge to create a tribunal to judge bishops accused of failing to police sex abuse in their own dioceses.
Despite charges that he failed to address the child abuse crisis in his own diocese, Cardinal George Pell was accepted into the pope’s inner circle. Pell was charged with “historical sexual assault offenses” by Australian authorities this summer, but Pope Francis has remained loyal to the cleric, who has denied the charges. His critics charge that Francis simply has a “blind spot” when it comes to these accusations, particularly when they concern friends and colleagues.
In his continuing reluctance to confront the true evil of priestly pedophilia, he’s showing that he’s not much different from the popes of the past – willing to sacrifice almost everything to remain a member in good standing of the old boys’ club.
Celia Wexler is the author of Catholic Women Confront Their Church: Stories of Hurt and Hope (Rowman & Littlefield).