Posted by: frroberts | December 22, 2017

Cardinal Law and me

When I was in college, I met Bernard Cardinal Law several times.  I attended a retreat he gave for young men discerning the priesthood and he personally invited me to study for the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Boston.  At another event with the Cardinal I attended while I was still a Harvard undergraduate, I learned that his eminence was disappointed that in all of his years as Archbishop of Boston, he had never been given an honorary doctorate by his alma mater, Harvard.  I did learn that in conjunction with one of his class reunions that he hosted an event at the archbishop’s mansion (since sold to Boston College to pay for settlements with abuse victims) and he did get some compliments for his digs.

I made my decision to enter seminary in the summer 2000.  My studies began in the fall of 2001.  The Boston priest sex abuse scandal broke in the Boston Globe in early January 2002.  In route to the Providence airport to fly back to Indiana for the Christmas holiday in December 2002, I heard on the radio that Cardinal Law resigned as the archbishop of Boston.

I was with some trepidation that I agreed to see Spotlight with a friend.  The film turned my stomach, thinking about the wounds inflicted on boys by men who should have been instruments of healing.  For me there is no way to suppress the shame that it raised for the failure of the leadership of the Church to act decisively to remove bad priests from the priesthood.

One of the things that made Spotlight a very difficult movie for me to view was that I did not feel like the storyline heaped unjust opprobrium on the Catholic Church.  I did not see anything on screen of which I was not already aware before watching it.  It struck me as a well-acted, directed and produced film.  In a word, the ordinariness of the film gave me pause.  It seemed to be saying, “we are telling the story of a colossal injustice about which everyone knows.”  I would have felt better had I been able to identify an agenda.  I could not.

After watching Spotlight, I was reminded of another element of what has been a constant struggle for me ever since the Herald broke the scandal just as my second semester of priestly formation began, which is a crisis of confidence.  Cardinal Law was just one of many bishops who shuffled criminals who used their collars as a means to abuse children sexually.  In my experience, many, many people believe that most Catholic priests are sexual perverts because of what they have seen in the media.  I can’t blame them.

After I returned from  a voluntary leave to sort out some personal issues to parish ministry more than six years ago, I met my old supervisor from the job that I had when I was on leave for lunch wearing my roman collar.  During our lunch she informed me that she thought most Catholic priests were child molesters, but that she knew that I was one of the exceptions.  This statement came from a practicing Christian and a person who I believe to be of above average moral integrity.

It is easy for a busy priest to lose sight of just how much the clergy sex abuse crisis has discredited the Church in the eyes of most Americans.  I often ask myself why I see so few young people at Mass on Sundays or why parents who were born south of the border seem to be the only ones who want to have their children baptized in my years as a priest.  Spotlight reminded me that the dominant narrative in the ambient culture in the Western world is that the Catholic Church and the Catholic priesthood in particular is a symbol for hypocrisy and corruption.  It finally has begun to sink in for me that my old supervisor is the rule, not the exception.

By the late 1980s and 1990s Catholicism had become so unfashionable that Harvard refused to give an honorary doctorate to an alumnus who was a member of the College of Cardinals and it seemed unfair, but the Church as an institution still had enough plausibility to impress in the wider culture. Today, I would not dream of attending a class reunion because I would not want to have to face my classmates as a Catholic priest.


From Cardinal Ratzinger’s 2005 Stations of the Cross

Jesus falls for the third time


What can the third fall of Jesus under the Cross say to us? We have considered the fall of man in general, and the falling of many Christians away from Christ and into a godless secularism. Should we not also think of how much Christ suffers in his own Church? How often is the holy sacrament of his Presence abused, how often must he enter empty and evil hearts! How often do we celebrate only ourselves, without even realizing that he is there! How often is his Word twisted and misused! What little faith is present behind so many theories, so many empty words! How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to him! How much pride, how much self-complacency! What little respect we pay to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, where he waits for us, ready to raise us up whenever we fall! All this is present in his Passion. His betrayal by his disciples, their unworthy reception of his Body and Blood, is certainly the greatest suffering endured by the Redeemer; it pierces his heart. We can only call to him from the depths of our hearts: Kyrie eleison – Lord, save us (cf. Mt 8: 25).


Lord, your Church often seems like a boat about to sink, a boat taking in water on every side. In your field we see more weeds than wheat. The soiled garments and face of your Church throw us into confusion. Yet it is we ourselves who have soiled them! It is we who betray you time and time again, after all our lofty words and grand gestures. Have mercy on your Church; within her too, Adam continues to fall. When we fall, we drag you down to earth, and Satan laughs, for he hopes that you will not be able to rise from that fall; he hopes that being dragged down in the fall of your Church, you will remain prostrate and overpowered. But you will rise again. You stood up, you arose and you can also raise us up. Save and sanctify your Church. Save and sanctify us all.


  1. Dear Father Roberts — I have read this piece by you before, and wondered if you have changed any of your views since you wrote it. Would you still be unwilling to go back to a class reunion? Merry Christmas to you, my friend.


  2. I did make some modifications.

    I would still not go to class reunions. Yes.


  3. And the one thing that isn’t addressed is that most of the victims were post pubescent BOYS (see John Jay study). The underlying problem of same sex attraction in the priesthood is not dealt with as it is not politically correct. Am I wrong?


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