When Cardinal Bernard F. Law resigned as leader of the Boston archdiocese in the midst of lawsuits stemming from decades of sexual abuse by priests of children and young adults, it seemed the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church had finally recognized the seriousness and the sinfulness of the behavior.
Law's position as archbishop of Boston became untenable after unsealed court records revealed he had moved predatory clergy among parishes without alerting parents that their children were at risk. More than 550 people have filed abuse claims in Boston in recent years and the archdiocese has paid more than $85 million in settlements.
But Catholics who believed the cardinal was being put out to pasture, thus forever depriving him of the public spotlight, received an unpleasant surprise when Pope John Paul II made him archpriest of St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome. While the Vatican tried to downplay the appointment by saying that Law's duties were largely ceremonial, his physical closeness to the center of the Roman Catholic Church was an insult to all victims of child abuse by clergy.
Law, who epitomized the admit-no-evil attitude of the leaders of the U.S. Catholic Church when initial press investigations revealed the true nature and the extent of the scandal, certainly didn't disappear from view in Rome. Just months after taking over his new assignment, a special event was held in his honor.
But that certainly paled in comparison to what occurred Monday. Cardinal Law celebrated Mass in mourning for Pope John Paul II in St. Peter's Basilica. He and the Vatican ignored the outcry from those who had been abused; police had to break up a small but symbolic protest staged by two victims.
Such insensitivity cannot be downplayed. The solemn Mass that Law celebrated was part of the official mourning period for the pope called Novemdiales. Masses are held on each of nine days. With most of the cardinals in Rome for John Paul's funeral -- 115 of them will meet in secret starting Monday to elect a new pope -- Law's presence in St. Peter's had the imprimatur of the hierarchy of the church. It is not surprising, therefore, that sexually abused victims viewed his participation as rubbing salt into their wounds.
More than 11,000 abuse claims have been made against U.S. clergy since 1950, and the payout to victims has risen to at least $840 million. The crisis erupted in 2002 with the case of one accused priest in Boston. As it spread throughout the U.S., the bishops were forced to first acknowledge the extent of the criminal activity and then to embrace sweeping reforms of their discipline policy for guilty priests.
But while the steps that have been taken do indicate a willingness to deal with this cancer in the church, it is clear that not enough punishment has been meted out to fit the crime.
In particular, bishops who protected the abusive priests have largely been given a pass. That is why Cardinal Law's celebration of a Mass in mourning for Pope John Paul II, on top of his assignment to St. Mary Major Basilica, is so egregious.