The Shadow Behind ‘Spotlight’: How Predator Priests Derailed Boston’s Would-Be Pope, Cardinal Bernard Law
The shadow villain of Spotlight, Bernard Law was one of America’s most ambitious and prominent cardinals—until his handling of the sex-abuse scandal caught up with him.
Spotlight is a gripping new film by Tom McCarthy on The Boston Globe’s investigation of how that archdiocese concealed child-molester priests. Set in 2001, the film serves as backstory to the Pulitzer Prize-winning series that began on Jan. 6, 2002—“Feast of the Epiphany,” as we learn in the intelligent script by McCarthy and Josh Singer.
Taking on the church in heavily Catholic Boston was no small order. Several of the reporters came from Catholic homes. Marty Baron, the Globe’s new editor, by way of The Miami Herald, suggested the investigation after reading a Globe columnist on a priest abuse case. Baron wanted to know more; he later became editor of The Washington Post.
Played by the bearded Liev Schreiber, Baron presents as a shy man, of few but forceful words, an outsider to tribal Boston, and a Jew, as a Catholic businessman says, sotto voce, to Michael Keaton in his edgy, pensive portrayal of Spotlight editor Walter “Robby” Robinson.
Robinson’s clutch of reporters worked months before the first article appeared, finding documents and tracking down victims of some 30 priests. The turning point in 2001 came when a court ruling against the church unsealed lawsuits that put clergy personnel documents into the public record. The Globe ultimately reported that the archdiocese had sheltered 249 predatory clerics going back several decades.
The Globe unmasked Cardinal Bernard Law, then Boston’s Archbishop, for shielding predators; he made Newsweek’s cover in March 2002. Spotlight ends two months before that, just as the newspaper series begins. A line onscreen at the end of the film says that Law resigned as archbishop in December 2002, and later became pastor in Rome of a historic basilica, Santa Maria Maggiore (note to reader: at a salary of $12,000 a month, according to The New York Times).
Law left Boston a figure of ridicule and disgrace, yet still a Prince of the Church, as cardinals are called. He has never given an interview in the 13 years since then. In researching a 2011 book on Vatican finances, and more recent reporting trips to Rome, I pieced together a picture of the cardinal in winter (he turns 84 next month) as he rebuilt a power base. His story echoes the wisdom of Heraclitus: character is fate.
The Globe series ignited a chain reaction of reports at the networks and daily newsrooms, not least at The New York Times, which owned the Globe then and competed hard on investigations of its own. For the church, the earthquake convulsed well into 2004; the impact continued on for years, as dioceses and religious orders settled thousands of victim lawsuits.
Early into Spotlight, Baron pays a courtesy call on Cardinal Law, played by a silver-haired Len Cariou with a suave patrician gravitas, saying that as a young monsignor in Mississippi in the 1960s, “I was close to the Evers brothers,” and that he wrote for the Jackson diocesan paper. In a dash of hubris the cardinal suggests common cause in a healthy press, and then gives editor Baron a copy of the thick Catholic Catechism. Schrieber’s facial twist registers irony as he takes the book, knowing that news will come of rules long broken by the church.
I let out an audible mmmm at that moment in the screening; my wife whispered, “Is something wrong?” I shook my head, no, thinking of Law: All that promise…
Globe reporters interviewed me in late 2001 and several times in 2002 because of a work I published in 1992—Lead Us Not Into Temptation, the first book to investigate the nationwide crisis of priest sex abuse. (The book actually has a cameo in the film; a survivor activist shows his copy to Spotlight reporters with other material he urges them to read.) The Globe reviewed the book favorably in 1992 during heavy national coverage of an ex-priest, James Porter, who left a trail of agony in Massachusetts towns going back many years, before taking a plea bargain and 20-year sentence for child sexual abuse. He died in prison six years later.
Cardinal Law was irate over the Porter coverage, blustering at one point, “We call down God’s power on the media, especially the Globe.”
The book took seven years, with endless photocopying and FedEx bills—this was pre-Internet—to obtain legal documents on far-flung bishops shielding sex offenders. But I was unable to get documents from New York, Boston, and Los Angeles: Church lawyers had a tight lid on cases. Other attorneys assumed that the victims took settlements in exchange for silence. Nine years later, Boston survivors came forth, with wrenching personal stories, after Judge Constance Sweeney, a Catholic, ruled that press freedom trumped church secrecy, unsealing lawsuits and giving victims the right to speak. The scene is a key moment in Spotlight.
Cardinal Law, the reporters’ ultimate target, is not a major character in the film; Baron tells his reporters to go after “the system,” not the man, though it goes unspoken that Law was the system.
I met Bernie Law, as priests in Mississippi called him, in Jackson, the state capitol, in the summer of 1971 while working as press secretary in Charles Evers’s quixotic campaign for governor. A week after graduation from Georgetown, I arrived as a volunteer, wrote a press release when they needed one, and got hired for $75 a week.
Law was vicar-general, the bishop’s top assistant. Evers, whose brother Medgar had been assassinated in 1963, respected Law for his editorials in the Catholic paper urging tolerance during the violent years. In a heavily Baptist state prone to racial demagogues, Law had been on the right side of history. By 1971 the riots and Klan violence had abated; but tensions were palpable, race relations still raw. I was curious about Law, and when I called, the monsignor invited me to dinner. When I parked my dented VW in the chancery parking lot, he said, “Let’s take my car.” It was larger and more comfortable.
He was 40, plump but energetic, a Harvard graduate with early silver hair, a cool mind and warm wit. I liked him immediately. He sang praises of the Italian restaurant where he had a reservation.
The owner gave him a lavish hello, and scowled at me. “Sorry, Monsignor, we can’t take him—the hair is too long.” Law frowned. I blushed. The hair stopped just shy of my shoulders, but this was Mississippi and the guy didn’t like suspected hippies. Law protested, without yelling, to no avail. I knew it wasn’t a moment to stand on constitutional rights and expect to eat lasagna.
Law was mortified as he drove to another restaurant, telling me somberly that backwards Mississippi really had made important strides. At dinner he brightened; we talked national politics, theology, and church changes since Vatican II.
As we left the restaurant, Law said: “How’d you like to meet the bishop?”
Sure. Joseph Brunini, the bishop of Jackson, came from a family with a prominent law firm; he too had been a voice of moderation in the dark years. The bishop, 52, had a condo outside Jackson at the vast Ross Barnett Reservoir where people with sailboats had slips.
Barnett was the former governor known for inflammatory speeches and standing in the doorway at the University of Mississippi in 1962 to block James Meredith as the first black student. Meredith was escorted in by white federal marshals. “Which of you is James Meredith?” said Barnett to the only black man in eyesight. The campus soon exploded in a riot that left two people dead as federal troops secured Meredith’s place. The state named the big lake for the worst governor Mississippi ever had.
We sat on the deck of the condo, sipping Scotch as the insects sang outside. Brunini was an amiable man, a Georgetown graduate curious about my time there, the three of us trading thoughts about race relations and the church. I realized that Mississippi’s Catholic community amounted to a minority religion, a tiny social presence, quite different from the New Orleans of my upbringing. Brunini wished me well and made a point of blessing me as we left.
As Law and I drove back to the chancery, his demeanor changed. He was smiling, a man on a cloud. “Did you like the bishop?” he said. Yes, a very nice man. “Did you think he was—cool?” Uh, sure.
This man wants to be a bishop, I reported to myself with the brilliance of a 22-year old. As we pulled up to my car, he stuck out his hand. “Call me Bernie.”
Campaign work intensified; he made a trip to Rome and I didn’t see him again; we chatted a few times by phone.
As the years passed I followed news on him. He became a bishop in Missouri, and several years later, in 1984, vaulted to Boston, as archbishop, and soon a cardinal. I’ve known journalists to fume over people they wished they’d kept up with. I soon felt that about Law, wishing I’d sent notes, Christmas cards, anything to cultivate a relationship. The regret hit me in the mid-’80s as I reported on the prosecution of a pedophile priest in Lafayette, Louisiana. In a circuitous way, those events led to Law.
In January of 1986, the weekly Times of Acadiana ran my final piece, reconstructing how Bishop Gerard Frey had played musical chairs with seven priests who had abused children over several years. The paper ran an editorial calling for the Vatican to remove the bishop, for which it got hit with an advertisers’ boycott fomented by a retired judge, Edmund Reggie, and a prominent monsignor. The paper lost $20,000 before cooler heads prevailed. In July, the Vatican sent a new bishop.
In February of that year I shifted to work on the book, and flew to Washington, D.C., to interview Father Tom Doyle, a canon lawyer at the Vatican Embassy. Doyle, I learned, sent a shot across the bow as co-author of a 100-page report in the spring of 1985 on the pedophile cases before it became a crisis. The document went to every bishop in America. A classic whistleblower, Doyle lost his job; he became an Air Force chaplain.
Doyle told me how he had given Cardinal Law a briefing on abuse cases in various states in 1984 before his work on the report. Law supported Doyle in the effort; he even contributed $1,000 to cover photocopy costs so the document could be sent to 150 bishops. Many years later, Law testified in a deposition in one of the Boston cases and said he could not recall details of that 1985 report, which became a “smoking gun” for advising bishops to remove predators and reach out to victims. Many bishops opted to recycle perpetrators after stints in psychiatric treatment facilities, and ignore victims until they filed lawsuits.
The next time I saw Law was 1993 in New Orleans where the bishops held their summer conference. Activists with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests were staging a protest. Law stepped off an elevator at the Hyatt Regency and nearly collided with me. “Your Eminence, it’s been a long time since Mississippi. Would you have time to talk?”
He shook his head grimly and moved on. I noticed he was much heavier.
In 1998, the artist Channing Thieme was preparing an exhibition called “Boston Faces,” portraits of a cross-section of Bostonians. She was not a Catholic, curious about a man as powerful as Law, and delighted when he agreed to sit for her at the cardinal’s mansion in Brighton. She found him a charming conversationalist in two drawing sessions. When she returned with the finished graphite portrait, Law was delighted. She said: “What’s the toughest part of your job?”
“Judgment—the decisions I must make,” Law replied. And, as if looking ahead to a bitter reckoning, he added: “That is the half of it. The other half is the judgment I must one day face myself.”
She was amazed at the statement. The words do not ring of false modesty.
Law in 1998 was the most powerful American churchman in Rome. Close to Pope John Paul and Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Secretary of State, Law cultivated ties in the Roman Curia and served on major Vatican committees. Yet that artist’s question, as he gazed at his black-and-white image, seemingly unloosed an inner coil. He apparently felt guilty about something. Could it have been the scores of pedophiles he had sent to treatment tanks, some of them recycled, with little thought of their ravaged victims?
Power is the movement of money. The out-of-court settlements Law had approved, predicated on victims’ silence, put the survivors out of sight, out of mind.
Judgment stalked him in civil depositions as the media coverage wore on; reporters used his testimony to shatter the credibility of the man who had urged John Paul II to authorize the updated, very long Catholic Catechism, the one that the cardinal in the movie gives to the editor with his quiet, quizzical face.
Law resigned just before Christmas 2002, after a private meeting with Pope John Paul II in Rome; he left Boston for sanctuary in a Maryland convent with nuns. Imagine the psychological blow to a man who had once told friends that he hoped to be the first American pope, a man whose support of migrants from the Dominican Republic entering Boston stood for the values of a church giving comfort and succor to the poor.
Nixon sought redemption after Watergate by writing books and holding dinners for selected journalists, a careful campaign to rehabilitate himself as a foreign policy sage.
Law turned to the one place where he had support—cardinals and bishops in the Roman Curia, the Vatican bureaucracy. “The curia is a brotherhood,” Cardinal Sodano once told The New York Times. Law had friends in the brotherhood after 17 years in Boston. A member of the Congregation for Bishops, he helped select new American bishops.
The news of Law’s new job in Rome in the spring of 2004 came at the worst possible time for his successor, Archbishop (later Cardinal) Seán O’Malley. O’Malley had approved an $85 million settlement to 542 victims, only to take public criticism for a wave of church closures, consolidating parishes in a controversial plan to sell property after the huge deficit Law had left. O’Malley had already sold the cardinal’s mansion for $108 million to Boston College. All that, and John Paul rewarded Law with a cushy perch at one of Rome’s great basilicas.
“Many people in Rome would say that he paid the price in the form of his resignation and that there’s no reason that he shouldn’t make a contribution,” Vatican correspondent John L. Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter told Boston Magazine two years after Law assumed his position. (Allen now writes for Crux, an online branch of the Globe that covers the Catholic Church.)
After many years away from Mississippi, I went to Jackson in 2004 to promote a book, written with Gerald Renner. Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II explores the Vatican’s role in the abuse crisis. Before the evening lecture, I did several media interviews, and spent time with SNAP leaders Johnny Rainer and Kenneth Morrison.
Morrison was 39, an artist in Chicago who had grown up in Jackson. He was one of three sons of a physician, by then deceased. His mother came to the book event. The family had moved to Jackson from Boston in 1969 when Kenneth’s dad, Dr. Francis Morrison, an oncologist, took a teaching position at the state medical school. As Boston Catholics, the Morrisons found a friend in Bernie Law, the Harvard graduate. The Morrisons also befriended Father George Broussard who, as pedophiles will do, ingratiated himself with the family, slowly molesting the three young boys.
As we drove around Jackson that day, Kenneth, a strapping guy who did industrial art projects in Chicago, pointed to several church buildings where, he said, Broussard had forced sex on him as a boy of 5, 6, and 7 years old—“there, in that one, and that one, and that one.” As we drove past the chancery, his memories of being abused spilled into my thought field from 1971. The summer evening I pulled into the chancery parking lot to meet Bernie Law, matched the time period when little Kenneth was being preyed upon by Father Broussard nearby.
Morrison sued the Jackson diocese in 2003. The diocese faced lawsuits against seven other priests, several dating back to Law’s tenure there.
Law was the bishop’s right hand when Dr. Morrison reported what Broussard had done to the chancery. As Morrison would later allege, Broussard began receiving “treatment,” while staying at another parish. Law was close to the Morrisons, and to Broussard. Knowing what he knew, what should Law have done?
“The sexual molestation of minors wasn’t even on my radar screen,” Law testified in a deposition in the Morrison case. “It wasn’t the issue that it is today… it didn’t come up.”
But the diocese did investigate, as William Houck, who succeeded Brunini as bishop, stated under oath: “Broussard said he subsequently admitted the accusations to Bernard Law and to Bishop (Joseph) Brunini, and attended confession with Bernard Law.”
Law had moved to Rome when the Jackson diocese agreed to an out-of-court settlement with Kenneth Morrison.
In late 2012, I spent five weeks in Rome for GlobalPost, reporting on the Vatican investigation of liberal American nuns—the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
Cardinal Law was a catalyst in sparking that investigation, as I reported, though he played no direct role in the interrogations, meetings, and correspondence that the sisters had with Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The C.D.F. is housed in the majestic palazzo where in 1616 the Inquisition punished Galileo for his position that the Earth revolves around the sun.
After leaving Boston in humiliation, Law found a fraternal womb in the Curia; but after the blows to his stature and ego, he wanted other people to “face judgment”—an outsized projection of his own faults in the desire to bring those liberal nuns to heel. The man who suggested the new catechism wanted obedience to authority, of which he himself had little.
Levada, it is worth adding, had been archbishop of San Francisco, and up to his chest in litigation over pedophile priests, when the newly elected Pope Benedict tossed him a ladder in 2005 as if from a celestial helicopter, lifting him up and away from the muck in the City by the Bay to beautiful Rome and great status as theologian-in-chief.
Levada refused to be interviewed. I called Law, hoping against hope that he might agree to talk. A priest took the call at Santa Maria Maggiore, let his cold silence register for a number of seconds, and stated: “The cardinal does not give interviews. There are no exceptions.”
Pope Francis would later oversee the termination of the proceedings against the nuns, and make a point of meeting with several of the leaders of American sisters for a reconciliation with news photographers present.
“Law is a presence on the embassy social circuit,” a Western diplomat in Rome told me in 2012. “He’s a cardinal, an official of the Curia, so he’s on the invitation lists. He’s sociable and mingles easily.”
The Holy See assumes a decorum among journalists who cover the Vatican. Many reporters who work in the press room off St. Peter’s Square have broken stories critical of church officialdom—Nicole Winfield of AP and Philip Pullella of Reuters prominent among them; but you don’t see journalists in packs ambushing church officials as if they were Chicago or Louisiana politicians heading into criminal court. Pope Benedict was reeling from the Vati-Leaks scandal in late 2012 when I attended a reception for a group of newly invested cardinals.
It was a rare chance to get inside the Apostolic Palace, which is closed to the public save for ceremonial occasions. The large reception parlors have elegant tapestries adorning the walls. The papal apartments and pope’s office on the top floor were off-limits. In one parlor a sizeable crowd of people who had come from Nigeria waited in a receiving line to greet their new cardinal, Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja. Many of the Nigerian women wept as they hugged him. The rich colors of Yoruba design on the dresses and dashikis of men were emblazoned with the new cardinal’s photograph. The vibrant festivity of the multicultural pageant in the life of the church reminded me of The Canterbury Tales.
Across the crowded Rome I saw the bloated, hulking figure of Cardinal Law, flanked by two priests, make his way past a receiving line toward two Italians in the red hat of cardinals. I moved that way, camera in hand. A priest at Law’s elbow saw me and glared, stationing himself closer to the cardinal to prevent a clear angle. I stood there for several minutes, without shooting, and then turned away, thinking of Kenneth Morrison.
A frequent Daily Beast contributor, Jason Berry’s books include Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church, and Up From the Cradle of Jazz: New Orleans Music Since World War II.