The death of Cardinal Bernard Law resurfaces a painful chapter in the Church’s history — one that saw the much-needed exposure of clergy sexual abuse in the Church, as well as the shocking revelation of its cover-up by members of the Catholic hierarchy. And it offers the Church the opportunity to say once again — for it can never say it enough — to the survivors: We are sorry. The pain and the trauma caused by the sex abuse crisis continues today, and the Church must continue to pledge resources to righting such a massive wrong.
This necessary recognition of the survivors was offered by many Church leaders in statements released after Cardinal Law’s death. Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote, “At this time especially we keep close in our prayer the brave survivors of sexual abuse. Their witness would lead to a comprehensive response from the Church in the United States to protect and heal the deep wounds of abuse. I pray they may find strength and peace in the mercy of Christ.”
With the death of Cardinal Law, we acknowledge a turning of the page in the U.S. sexual abuse crisis, while also understanding that the road to healing spans much longer than one lifetime. The outline of the next chapter can be found in the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People (revised in 2011), which directs the Church toward 1) the healing of and reconciliation with survivors; 2) a guaranteed response to allegations of sexual abuse of minors; 3) steadfast accountability; and 4) protection of young people in the future by maintaining safe environment programs. In committing to and maintaining this course of growth, education and training, the Church, we pray, will be able to continue on the path toward eventual purification.
Coincidences, G.K. Chesterton wrote, are spiritual puns, and it is an interesting coincidence that Cardinal Law’s death should take place at the time of #metoo. Those of us who lived through the “moment of revelation” of the clergy sexual abuse crisis are hearing its echo in the many harassment and abuse allegations of today. The messiness that seemed at one time confined to the Church is now being revealed in Hollywood, the media and elsewhere. Other instances have come to light over the years — and will continue to be revealed.
We say this not to deflect attention away from the Church, but to acknowledge that this horrifying, systemic abuse is the result of the fallen nature of humanity. Humanity is just as capable of great evil as it is of great good, and it will continue to be so up until the time of Christ’s return.
In the meantime, however, we can work toward the betterment of our Church and our society as a whole by committing anew to living a more Christian life — to continued conversion through words and deeds rooted in love of God and love of neighbor, and through a commitment to care for and protect the most vulnerable. And when we fall into sin, as we inevitably will do, we can commit to seeking out the forgiveness and healing available to us through our merciful God.
There is no doubt that Cardinal Law’s leadership did much damage. There is no doubt that his failures led to incalculable pain and suffering. Yet as Catholic Christians, we believe in the everlasting, incomprehensible mercy of a generous and loving God.
His death gives us the opportunity to act on these beliefs. In addition to praying for the healing of all those who were abused, and to ensuring that such abuse is never repeated, we should pray for the soul of Cardinal Law — and for our own continuing conversion.
OSV Editorial Board: Don Clemmer, Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott Richert, York Young