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Cardinal Bernard F. Law’s appointment as archpriest of the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome garnered the attention of the national media and prompted diehard critics to decry the papal decision. Such critics should take a broader perspective.
A few months into the Church crisis, Cardinal Law said he had become the lightning rod of the sexual abuse scandal. He was right. All the revelations in the media reflected on him, although most of the cases of priest abuse happened and were dealt with years before the cardinal arrived in Boston. He certainly made egregious mistakes during his first years as Archbishop of Boston — mostly in delegating to doctors and lawyers his discernment as archbishop. Nevertheless, his role in the crisis has been magnified — he has truly become the poster child of the Church’s protective culture.
Cardinal Law was certainly a key figure in the American episcopate in the 1980s and 1990s but he was one among many who wrongly protected priests more than they protected victims. As the John Jay report eloquently showed, the culture of protection was a reality in the vast majority of U.S. dioceses. The scandal broke in Boston, but it was national in nature.
To Cardinal Law’s credit, he was among the first in the country to institute — in 1993—— a policy for the protection of children, and to create — also in 1993 — an independent lay board to deal with priests accused of sexual misconduct with minors. He certainly placed, at the recommendation of the review board, accused priests in restricted ministry, though that was widely viewed as the right thing to do based on the understanding of the problem at the time.
The protests by some regarding the appointment of the at-one-time most influential American cardinal to a ceremonial, powerless position in a Roman basilica — whose “influential” duties include overseeing its administration and liturgical life — show that Cardinal Law has become not only the lightning rod but also the scapegoat for the Church in the United States. We are sure he is gladly accepting that role — bearing, together with his own, the guilt of others. That is, after all, part of what Christians are supposed to do.