In this Thursday, Aug. 5, 2004 file photo, Cardinal Bernard Law celebrates Mass during the ceremony for Our Lady of the Snows, in St. Mary Major's Basilica, in Rome, Italy.

Credit: Domenico Stinellis/AP

Walter Robinson On Bernard Law's Legacy In Boston And Beyond

December 20, 2017

Walter Robinson, editor at large at The Boston Globe, joined WGBH's Morning Edition to discuss Boston Cardinal Bernard Law's legacy and the sex abuse scandal he covered up.

The below transcript has been edited for clarity.

Joe Mathieu: You're listening to WGBH's Morning Edition.

The disgraced archbishop of Boston Cardinal Bernard Law has died. Law became the head of Boston's archdiocese in 1984 and for the next 17 years would be the country's most influential church figure. He was beloved in this city, Boston Magazine ranked him fourth on its power list back in 2001. How long ago that seems.

An investigation by The Boston Globe Spotlight Team, of course, would change that. Their Pulitzer Prize reporting exposed a sexual abuse scandal that rattled the church and revealed that Law had protected dozens of clergy accused of child molestation. The team of investigative reporters was led by Walter Robinson, editor at large at The Boston Globe and he joins us now. Walter welcome to WGBH's Morning Edition.

Walter Robinson: Good morning, Joe.

JM: I can't imagine what's going through your mind as you read this headline today.

WR: Well, you know, the cardinal as we've known has been ill for quite some time. So his death does not come as a surprise.

Perhaps it's less of a surprise, and more of a reminder of the trauma that has beset the church since 2002, not just in Boston but in virtually every archdiocese around the world, where similar crimes, cover-ups of thousands and thousands of priests who molested children, as the church hid their crimes and in effect enabled the abuse to go on for decades.

JM: With the amount of time that you put into covering this story, is there a sense of finality?

WR: No there isn't. This is a hackneyed phrase but I think somehow this is the end of the beginning of this story. The scandal continues, revelations continue in many places around the world including in the United States. The church's efforts at reform seem to have come off the rails, most of the time in most places, and as tragic a figure as Cardinal Law was, his death is another reminder to us that he was essentially the product of a cookie cutter that produced scores of cardinals of his generation, all of whom did the same thing.

They all tried to hide the abuse, they all refused to bring the perpetrators to civil authorities unless forced to. They all moved priests from one parish to another, so their crimes would not be uncovered. And the result was horrific. In Boston, as you know, more than 10 percent of priests who served over a 60-year period had been credibly accused of abusing children. And, I mean, that's a tragedy from which the church may never recover.

JM: Does this also not remind us of the number of years he walked and lived freely in Rome without punishment?

WR: Well he was, he lived in disgrace, and I suppose I think of him sometimes a little bit like Richard Nixon. He was a man who had the ultimate power of the church in America. He was a senior American cardinal. He was a friend and adviser to presidents. He was sometimes talked about as the likely first American cardinal. And because of his misdeeds in Boston, he lost all of that. So whatever cushy position he had in Rome, and they certainly gave him one, it was for him a fall from grace that was absolute and deserved. And the fact that the church gave him such a comfortable position in Rome is in itself an acknowledgment that the church and its leaders in the Vatican knew that he was basically taking a bullet for the team. That he merely did what all of them did. It's just that he was the first one to get caught in a wholesale way.

JM: Walter Robinson, when you look back at the work you did on this, that of course led to the downfall of the cardinal, that was eventually turned into a movie, is that the defining moment of your career?

WR: Well, I think certainly the the work that we did, the reporting that we did back in, from 2001 to 2003, was far and away the most potent story that the newspaper has ever encountered. You know, for reporters that sometimes is a little dumb luck involved in that. You know we started out looking at just one priest, Father John Geoghan, and because there were four of us digging deep on this, within a week or so we found out that the problem was much bigger, that there were a whole bunch of priests who had done the same thing, and their crimes had been covered up.

And at the time we thought it was a dozen priests, and by the time we began to publish we we knew it was already over 100, and it ended up in Boston at 250. And as soon, as you'll remember, as soon as we began to publish, it was the dawn of the Internet age and we immediately began to get e-mails from victims all over the world. Within a day we had e-mails from as far away as Australia from victims of priests saying please write about my story.

JM: It was portrayed by Michael Keaton in the movie. Walter Robinson, of The Boston Globe Spotlight Team, there are few people we wanted to talk with more than you at this moment, we thank you for sharing insights on WGBH's Morning Edition.

WR: My pleasure, Joe.


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