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Cardinal Law’s overlooked legacy: a new anti-clericalism in America’s Catholic heartland

Pope Francis prays near the casket of Cardinal Bernard Law at the end of his funeral Mass (CNS)

In the early 2000s, when claims clerical sex abuse in Boston first surfaced, there were roughly 1,350 priests ministering to the archdiocese. At least 270 were accused of abusing children. That’s upwards of 20 per cent of all clergy, both secular and religious.

Now, that does not mean one in five priests is a predator. But, then again, who knows? Cardinal Seán O’Malley, his successor as Archbishop of Boston, has called this “the greatest tragedy to befall children” in the history of Massachusetts. And he’s right. But it was the worst tragedy to befall the state’s priests, too. Every single one of them automatically comes under suspicion of being a paedophile.

Ireland has a better sense of how difficult this saga has been for those upstanding clergymen who find themselves lumped together with the heinous minority of predators. The 2014 film Calvary stars Brendan Gleeson as a priest who is threatened by a victim of clerical sex abuse – and only because he’s innocent. “There’s no point in killing a bad priest,” the man tells him. “But killing a good one! That’d be a shock.”

In another scene, Gleeson’s character passes a little girl on the side of the road. They walk together, talking about surfing and holidays, until her father pulls up alongside them and orders her into the car. “What the hell were you saying to her?” he asks Gleeson’s character. “I wasn’t saying anything,” the priest replies, stunned. “You looked deep in ——ing conversation to me,” the father snaps, and they peel out down the road. Gleeson is left standing there dumbly, humiliated.

Of course, this is fiction. But the targeting of innocent priests is not. Their humiliation is not. That’s why Ireland’s Association of Catholic Priests has begun offering therapy to those falsely accused of sexual impropriety – particularly as they are more and more turning to suicide. As Fr Tim Hazelwood told The Irish Times, a priest “is presumed guilty” by Church authorities until proven innocent. Surely there’s a better alternative to complicity with actual rapists?

That’s not even mentioning the vocations crisis. Many good young men will give up sex to serve God and His Church, difficult though celibacy is. In our hyper-libidinal age, it can also be embarrassing to signal one’s celibacy simply by putting on the Roman collar. But now, at least in Boston, that collar may as well be a sign that the wearer is a threat to children. Of course, that isn’t true. But everyone in Massachusetts has a son, brother, cousin, friend, or neighbour who was an altar boy and hasn’t been quite right since.

In the 1990s, a close relative of mine worked at a psychiatric hospital about an hour outside the city. The archdiocese bought a house next door to serve as a retirement home, and paid the hospital to care for the priests who lived there. No one had any illusions about what was going on: it was a safe house for paedophile priests. Among the “patients” was Fr John Geoghan, who finally went to prison in 2002, on one charge of molestation; the archdiocese spent $10 million to hush another 86 of his victims. Less than a year later, Fr Geoghan was strangled in his cell by fellow inmate Joseph Druce. “Your days are over,” Druce told Geoghan as he throttled him. “No more children for you, pal.” A convinced murderer and white supremacist, Druce became something of a folk hero in stately, progressive Boston. Even to Catholics. Perhaps especially to Catholics.

Let’s just say you won’t see #NotAllPriests trending on Twitter any time soon.

I’ve lived in Massachusetts for most of my life, and was educated in its Catholic school system. Every priest I’ve spoken to is shocked by the assumption they venerate Cardinal Law because “he had our backs”. He was a “company man”. No, he was not. If he cared about the clergy under his charge, he would have rooted out the true monsters in their ranks. Instead, Boston’s priests are some of the most hated since the French Revolution. This, too, is a huge part of the late cardinal’s legacy: a new anti-clericalism, born in the heartland of American Catholicism.

Maybe someday we will be able to acknowledge the clerical victims of clerical sex abuse. Judging from the newspapers and cable news shows, I don’t think that day has arrived yet. But for the sake of the many decent men who serve us in the priesthood, let’s pray it comes soon.