Former Boston Archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law was vilified by The Boston Globe, but before that he was a champion of justice in the Civil Rights Movement.
Four years after The Boston Globe set out to sensationalize the sins of some few members of the Church and priesthood, another news story – one subtly submerged beneath the fold – drifted quietly through a few New England newspapers. After a very short life, the story faded from view. In 2006, Matt McGonagle resigned from his post as assistant principal of Rundlett Middle School in Concord, New Hampshire. Charged with multiple counts of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old high school student six years before, McGonagle ended his criminal case by striking a plea deal with prosecutors. McGonagle pleaded guilty to the charges on July 28, 2006.
He was sentenced to a term of sixteen months in a local county jail. An additional sentence of two-and-a-half to five years in the New Hampshire State Prison was suspended by the presiding judge in Merrimack County Superior Court – the same court that declined to hear evidence or testimony in my habeas corpus appeal in 2013 after having served 20 years in prison for crimes that never took place.
In a statement, Matt McGonagle described the ordeal of being prosecuted. He said it was “extraordinarily difficult,” and thanked his “many advocates” who spoke on his behalf. In the local press, defense attorney Jim Rosenberg defended the plea deal for a sixteen month county jail sentence:
“The sentence is fair, and accurately reflects contributions that Matt has made to his community as an educator.” (Melanie Asmar, “Ex-educator pleads guilty in sex assault,” Concord Monitor, July 29, 2006)
Four years earlier, attorney Jim Rosenberg was a prosecutor in the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office from where he worked to prosecute the Diocese of Manchester for its handling of similar, but far older claims against Catholic priests.
The accommodation called for in the case of teacher/principal Matt McGonagle – an insistence that he is not to be forever defined by the current charges against him – was never even a passing thought in the prosecutions of Catholic priests. Those cases sprang from the pages of The Boston Globe, swept New England, and then went viral across America. The story marked The Boston Globe’s descent into “trophy justice.”
I have always been aware of this inconsistency in the news media and among prosecutors, but never considered writing specifically about how it applied to Cardinal Bernard Law until I read David Pierre’s new book, Sins of the Press. On page after page it cast a floodlight on The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer-endorsed lynching of Cardinal Law, offered up as a scapegoat for The Scandal and driven from Boston by the news media despite having never been accused, tried, or convicted of any real crime.
Does the “lynching of Cardinal Law” seem too strong a term? Historically, the word “lynching” came into the English lexicon from the name of Captain William Lynch of Virginia who acted as prosecutor, judge and executioner. He became notorious for his judgment-sans-trial while leading a band to hunt down Loyalists, Colonists suspected of loyalty to the British Crown in the War for Independence in 1776.
The term applies well to what started in Boston, then swept the country. Most of those suspected or accused in the pages of The Boston Globe, including Cardinal Bernard Law, were never given any trial of facts. As I wrote in “The Pulitzer Lies: David and the Truth About Goliath,” many of the priests were deceased when accused, and many others faced accusations decades after any supportive evidence could be found, or even looked for. The Massachusetts Attorney General issued an astonishing statement given short shrift in the pages of The Boston Globe:
“The evidence gathered during the course of the Attorney General’s sixteen-month investigation does not provide a basis for bringing criminal charges against the Archdiocese and its senior managers.” (Attorney General Thomas Reilly, “Executive Summary and Scope of the Investigation,” July 23, 2003)
So I decided to explore the story of Cardinal Bernard Law for These Stone Walls. At the end of my post, “The Pulitzer Lies,” I wrote that I would soon have something to say about the legacy and reputation of Cardinal Law to be posted on November 4th, which also happens to be his 84th birthday.
My statement of intent sparked very mixed feelings among some readers. A few wrote to me that they look forward to reading my take on the once good name of this good priest. A few taunted me that this is yet another “David v Goliath” task. Others wrote more ominously, “Don’t do it, Father! Don’t step on that minefield! What if they target you next?” That reaction is a monument to the power of the news media to spin a phenomenon called “availability bias.”
A while back, I was invited by Catholic League President Bill Donohue to contribute some articles for Catalyst, the Journal of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. My second of two articles appeared in the July/August 2009 issue just as These Stone Walls began. It was entitled “Due Process for Accused Priests” and it opened with an important paragraph about the hidden power of the press to shape what we think:
“Psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002 for his work on a phenomenon in psychology and marketing called ‘availability bias.’ Kahneman demonstrated the human tendency to give a proposition validity just by how easily it comes to mind. An uncorroborated statement can be widely seen as true merely because the media has repeated it. Also in 2002, the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal swept out of Boston to dominate news headlines across the country….”
This is exactly what happened to Cardinal Law. There was a narrative about him, an impression of his nature and character that unfolded over the course of his life. I have just spent several weeks studying that narrative and it is most impressive.
Then that narrative was replaced by something else. With a target on his back, the story of Cardinal Law was entirely and unjustly rewritten by The Boston Globe. Then the rewrite was repeated again and again until it took hold, went viral, and replaced in public view the account of who this man really is.
Even some in the Church settled upon this sacrificial offering of a reputation. Perhaps only someone who has known first hand such media-fueled bias can instinctively recognize it happening. Suffice it to say that I instinctively recognize it. I offer no other defense of my decision to visit anew the first narrative in the story of who Bernard Law was and still is. If you can set aside for a time the availability bias created around the name of Cardinal Bernard Law, then you may find this account to be fascinating, just as I did.
FROM HARVARD TO MISSISSIPPI
As this account of a courageous life and heroic priesthood unfolded before me, I was eerily reminded of another story, one I came across many years ago. It was the year I began to seek something more than the Easter and Christmas Catholicism I inherited. It was 1968, and I was fifteen years old, a junior at Lynn English High School just north of Boston. Two champions of the Civil Rights Movement I had come to admire and respect in my youth – Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy – had just been assassinated. And just as my mind and spirit were being shaped by that awful time, I stumbled upon something that would refine for me that era: the great 1963 film, The Cardinal.
Based on a book of the same name by Henry Morton Robinson (Simon & Schuster 1950), actor Tom Tryon portrayed the title role of Boston priest, Father Stephen Fermoyle who rose to become a member of the College of Cardinals after a heroic life as an exemplary priest. It was the first time I encountered the notion that priesthood might require courage, and I wondered whether I had any. I was fifteen, sitting alone at Mass for the first time in my life when this movie sparked a scary thought.
Father Fermoyle was asked by the Apostolic Nuncio to tour the southern United States “between the Great Smokies and the Mississippi River” – an area known for anti-Catholic prejudice. He was tasked with writing a report on the state of the Catholic Church there during a time of great racial unrest.
In the script (and in the book which I read later) Mississippi Chancery official, Monsignor Whittle (played in the film by actor, Chill Wills) was fearful of the racist, anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan. He tried to dissuade Father Fermoyle from making any waves, but his mere presence there would set off a tidal wave of suspicion. In a horrific scene, Father Fermoyle was kidnapped in the night, blindfolded, and driven to the middle of a remote field – a field where many young black men had disappeared.
His blindfold removed, he found himself surrounded by men in sheets and white hoods, illuminated by the light of a burning cross. Father Fermoyle was given a crucifix and ordered to spit on it or face the scourging of Christ. Henry Morton Robinson’s book conveys the scene:
“He held the crucifix between thumb and forefinger, lofting it like a lantern in darkness…. Ancient strength of martyrs flowed into Stephen’s limbs. Eyes on the gilt cross, he neither flinched nor spoke. [The music played] ‘In Dixieland I’ll take my stand.’ Stephen prayed silently that no drop of spittle, no whimpering plea for mercy, would fall from his lips before the end… The sheeted men climbed into their cars. Not until the last taillight had disappeared had Stephen lowered the crucifix.” (The Cardinal, p 412-413)
This could easily have been a scene from the life of Father Bernard Law. Born on 4 November 1931 in Torreon, Mexico, Bernard Francis Law spent his bilingual childhood between the United States, Latin America, and the Virgin Islands. His father was a U.S. Army Captain in World War II and Bernard was an only child. Very early in life, he learned that acceptance does not depend on race, or color, or creed, and once admonished his classmates in the Virgin Islands that “Never must we let bigotry creep into our beings.”
At age 15, Bernard read Mystici Corporis, a 1943 Encyclical of Pope Pius XII that Bernard later described as “the dominant teaching of my life.” He was especially touched by the language of inclusion of a heroic Pope in a time of great oppression. The encyclical was banned in German-occupied Belgium for “subversive” lines connecting the Mystical Body of Christ with the unity of all Christians, transcending barriers such as race or politics.
As a weird aside, I was in shock and awe as I sat typing this post when I asked out loud, “How could I find a copy of Mystici Corporis while stuck in a New Hampshire prison cell?” Then our convert friend, Pornchai Moontri jumped from his bunk, pulled out his footlocker containing the sum total of his life, and handed me a heavily highlighted copy of the 1943 Encyclical. I haven’t yet wrapped my brain around that, but it’s another post for another time.
While attending Harvard University, Bernard Law found a vocation to the priesthood during his visits to Saint Paul’s Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After graduating from Harvard in 1953, the year I was born, a local bishop advised him that Boston had lots of priests and he should give his talents to a part of the Church in need. At age 29, Father Bernard Law was ordained for what was the Diocese of Natchez-Jackson, Mississippi.
STANDING BEFORE THE MASK OF TYRANNY
The year was 1961. The Second Vatican Council would soon open in Rome, and the Civil Rights Movement was gathering steam (and I do mean steam!) in the United States, Father Law immersed himself in both. A Vicksburg lawyer once remarked that Father Law “went into homes as priests [there] had never done before.” With a growing reputation for erudition and bridge building on issues many others simply avoided, Bernard was summoned by his bishop to the State Capitol to become editor of the diocesan weekly newspaper, then called The Mississippi Register.
It was there that the courage to proclaim the Gospel took shape in him, and became, along with his brilliant mind, his most visible gift of the Holy Spirit. Another young priest of that diocese noted that Father Law’s racial attitudes – shaped by his childhood in the Virgin Islands – were different from those of most white Mississipians. “He felt passionately about racial justice from the first moment I knew him,” the priest wrote. “It wasn’t a mere following of teaching, it came from his heart.”
I know many Mississippi Catholics today – including many who read These Stone Walls – but in the tumultuous 1960s, Catholics were a small minority in Mississippi. They were also a target for persecution by the Ku Klux Klan which was growing in both power and terror as the nation struggled with a burgeoning Civil Rights Movement.
An 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision in “Plessy v. Ferguson” had defined the doctrine of “separate but equal” as a Constitutional nod to racial segregation, but in 1954 in “Brown v. Board of Education,” the Supreme Court based a landmark desegregation ruling on solid evidence that “separate” was seldom “equal.” Opposition to the ruling grew throughout the South, and so did terrorist Klan activities. In 1955, the murder of a black Mississippi boy, 14-year-old Emmett Till, rocked the state and the nation, as did the acquittal of his accused white killers.
This was the world of Father Bernard Law’s priesthood. Up to that time, the diocesan newspaper, The Mississippi Register, had been visibly timid on racial issues, but this changed with this priest at the helm. In June of 1963 he wrote a lead story on the evils of racial segregation citing the U.S. Bishops’ 1958 “Statement on Racial Discrimination and the Christian Conscience.”
One week later, the respected NAACP leader Medgar Evers was gunned down outside his Jackson, Mississippi home. Both Father Law and (then) Natchez-Jackson Bishop Richard Gerow boldly attended the wake for Medgar Evers under the watchful eyes of the Klan. Father Law’s next issue of The Mississippi Register bore the headline, “Everyone is Guilty,” citing a statement by his Bishop that many believe was written by Bernard Law:
“We need frankly to admit that the guilt for the murder of Mr. Evers and the other instances of violence in our community tragically must be shared by all of us… Rights which have been given to all men by the Creator cannot be the subject of conferral or refusal by men.”
Father Law and Bishop Gerow were thus invited to the White House along with other religious leaders to discuss the growing crisis in Mississippi with President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Later that summer, Father Law challenged local politicians in The Mississipi Register for their lack of moral leadership on racial desegregation, stating “Freedom in Mississippi is now at an alarmingly low ebb.” Massachusetts District Judge Gordon Martin, who was a Justice Department attorney in Mississippi at that time, once wrote for The Boston Globe that Father Law…
“…did not pull his punches, and the Register’s editorials and columns were in sharp contrast with the racist diatribes of virtually all of the state’s daily and weekly press.”
Later that year, Father Law won the Catholic Press Association Award for his editorials. In “Freedom Summer” 1964, when three civil rights workers were missing and suspected to have been murdered, Father Bernard Law openly accepted an invitation to join other religious leaders to advise President Lyndon Johnson on the racial issues in Mississippi. When the bodies of the three slain young men were found buried at a remote farm, the priest boldly issued a challenge to stand up to the crisis:
“In Mississippi, the next move is up to the white moderate. If he is in the house, let him now come forward.”
Later that year Father Law founded and became Chairman of the Mississippi Council on Human Relations. Then the home of a member, a rabbi, was bombed. Then another member, a Unitarian minister, was shot and severely wounded. The FBI asked Father Law to keep them apprised of his whereabouts, and Bishop Gerow, fearing for his priest’s safety, ordered him from the outskirts of Jackson to the Cathedral rectory, but Bernard Law feared not.
Happy Birthday, Your Eminence. Oh,that such courage as yours were contagious, for many in our Church could use some now. Thank you for the gift of a courageous priesthood. Let us not go gentle into The Boston Globe’s good night.
Note from Father Gordon: I am indebted for this post to the book, Boston’s Cardinal (Lexington Books 2002) edited by Romanus Cessario, O.P. with a biographical introduction by Mary Ann Glendon. [Find in a library: WorldCat]
Update for the Week