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Why do good people do bad things? That perennial question arises anew with the death of Cardinal Bernard Law, who has been so widely vilified as the central figure in the Catholic Church’s sex-abuse scandal. By most standards, Law was an exemplary pastor, who spent his spare time visiting the sick and making calls to the bereaved. Having met with him frequently, I knew that when I had a one-on-one session with Law, I had his undivided attention; if I had troubles to discuss, I had his complete sympathy.

Of course, once I left the cardinal’s office, someone else had his undivided attention. Since administrative follow-up was never his strong suit, I eventually learned that Law’s sympathy did not necessarily translate into effective action to resolve problems. When I first heard that he had allowed abusive priests to remain in ministry, I attributed the problems to negligence.

But as details emerged, I realized that something worse than simple negligence was in play. The cardinal had not merely failed to remove priests after credible complaints; he had protected and promoted clerics with long histories of abuse, and given parishioners false assurance that complaints had been resolved. How could this man, so sensitive to the suffering of other people, have ignored the suffering of abuse victims? How could he have overlooked the dangerous consequences of allowing known predators to act as pastors? How could he write to one notorious pedophile priest, after finally accepting his retirement: “Yours has been an effective ministry, sadly marred by illness”?

And why was this man, so stalwart in his defense of unpopular Church teachings, unwilling to confront the truth about abuse? Why did he lie to aggrieved parents and parishioners, denying accusations that he knew were accurate? When he was deposed in lawsuits, why did he make self-serving statements that bore all the marks of outright perjury?

In his own defense, Law spoke of a “learning curve,” suggesting that Church leaders were only then learning about the dangers of child abuse. Nonsense! Molesters have always been recognized as a grave danger to society. Something extraordinary had happened to the American Catholic hierarchy, prompting bishops to unlearn what their great-grandparents found obvious. Bishops had come to treat abuse as a problem to be managed—quietly—rather than a sin and a crime to be expunged.

In one deposition, the embattled cardinal offered a more persuasive explanation for his attempts to protect abusive clerics. He had done it, he confessed, to avoid bringing a scandal down upon the Church. Thus he became the latest historical figure to demonstrate that the cover-up compounds the scandal.

But what was this institution that Law sought to defend by concealing the truth? The Catholic Church serves the Lord who said that “the truth shall set you free.” Or as St. Augustine put it, “God does not need my lie.” The cover-up certainly did not serve the pastoral needs of the flock; it did not build up the Body of Christ. So the tragedy of Cardinal Law underlines another painful moral lesson: When Church leaders forsake the truth in the hope of protecting their own status, they forfeit their only legitimate claim to public respect. In the end, Law’s misguided policies, motivated by the quest for human respect, left the reputation of the Catholic hierarchy in tatters.

Still, to keep things in perspective, Law was not unique—nor even unusual—in his approach, as we learned during the “Long Lent” of 2002. After the investigative reporting of the Boston Globe unveiled the scandal in Boston, a similar pattern emerged in one American diocese after another. Law became notorious for his handling of abuse complaints, and rightly so. But many of his fellow bishops had followed the same policies, without attracting nearly the same degree of opprobrium. In Los Angeles (to take just one notable example), Cardinal Roger Mahony had coddled abusive priests, and the archdiocese was eventually forced to pay settlements that dwarfed the size of the (already ruinous) payouts by the Boston archdiocese. But by that time the American public was exhausted with the reports, and the fresh revelations no longer shocked. Reporters were no longer as aggressive in ferreting out details; the Globe had already won its Pulitzer. And it is important to note that Mahony had carefully cultivated a friendly relationship with the leading local newspaper, the Los Angeles Times—unlike Law, who had clashed regularly with the Globe before becoming the paper’s top target.

By April 2002, just a few weeks after the Globe’s bombshell exploded, Law recognized that his position as archbishop of Boston had become untenable. But at the Vatican a strong cadre of prelates, doubtless motivated by the same desire to avoid public humiliation, convinced the ailing Pope John Paul II to refuse the cardinal’s first attempt to resign. In 2004, after Law had slipped off the public scene, the same group engineered his appointment as archpriest of the Roman Basilica of St. Mary Major. That appointment could be interpreted as a tacit acknowledgment that Law had “taken one for the team,” or, more ominously, as an indication that the Vatican still did not understand the nature of the crisis.

And today: Is the Vatican ready to repair the damage? Pope Francis is regularly portrayed by the media as a champion of reform, and he has repeatedly insisted that the drive to prevent abuse—and, importantly, to discipline bishops whose negligence allows it—is a top priority. But in practice he has promoted bishops who have manifestly failed in that duty. Pope Francis set up a special commission on sexual abuse (chaired by Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Law’s successor in Boston), but that panel has been hamstrung by a shortage of funding and a conspicuous lack of cooperation from other Vatican offices. After creating the commission, Pope Francis waited three years to meet with its members; he evidently never did give orders for other Vatican departments to follow the commission’s directives.

Ironically, just a few days before Cardinal Law’s death, the mandate of that papal commission on child abuse lapsed. No one doubts that Pope Francis will renew it eventually. But it is telling that when its official expiration date arrived, no one in Rome took notice. Perhaps the death of Cardinal Law will spur the Vatican to more effective action, to eliminate a widespread corruption that Law’s unhappy tenure in Boston illustrated—but certainly did not cause.

Philip Lawler is editor of Catholic World News.

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