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Caryl Rivers Headshot

The President and the Felon

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by Caryl Rivers

Ever wonder why the Vatican and conservative Catholics are out of touch with what real people -including their religious brethren--are thinking?

Well, there's this: conservatives are throwing a hissy fit because the President of the United States is getting an honorary degree from Notre Dame, while they ignore the fact that a man who should be a felon is honored with a cushy job in Rome.

Harvard law professor and former ambassador to the Vatican Mary Ann Glendon is refusing to attend the Notre Dame graduation because president Obama is to be given an honorary degree.

In a letter to the university's president, Glendon wrote that Catholic institutions "should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles" and that such persons "should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions."

Is the Vatican not a Catholic Institution? And did not the Vatican honor Cardinal Bernard Law, former archbishop of Boston, with a prestigious position after he made it out of the Bay State a few jumps ahead of the (lower case) law.

Law, who protected and enabled pedophiles who for years preyed on vulnerable children, gets a sweet deal from the church. He is a member of the Roman Curia, archpriest of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, and titular Cardinal Priest of Santa Susanna, the American Catholic church in Rome.

A friend of mine, who happened to find herself in Rome on one recent Christmas Eve, wandered into mass at the Basilica and saw a familiar face atop resplendent red robes. "Oh my God, it's Bernie Law!" she said. She felt more like vomiting than praying.

President Obama, who gave up a lucrative career that his Ivy League credentials would have afforded him to organize the poor of inner city Chicago, gets told he's not "moral" enough to step foot on the campus of Notre Dame?

Conservative Catholics have a rather warped sense of morality. A president who supports a woman's right to choose--as do most prominent Catholic politicians, including Ted Kennedy and John Kerry--creates an outcry, but a pedophile protector escapes outrage.

And what did Bernie Law do exactly? As Dahlia Lithwick noted in Slate,
"We have a clearer picture of what precisely the Cardinal has done, or not done, over the past decade and a half. What's emerged is horrifying. Law was not only aware of egregious sexual misconduct among his subordinates but was apparently engaged in elaborate efforts to cover up incident after incident of child rape. Worse yet, he breezily reassigned clergy known for sexually abusing children to work with more children--conduct not all that distinguishable from leaving a loaded gun in a playground."

In the 1990s, my Boston University colleague Joe Bergantino, then with the investigative unit of WBZ television in Boston, broke the story of father James Porter, the priest who started abusing scores of children in a Fall River parish on the 60s. Porter just kept getting passed along to new parishes, where his molestations continued. As the story grew to other media, Bernie Law declaimed in 1993: "By all means, we call down God's wrath on the media."

God's wrath would surely have been directed elsewhere. Law was finally forced to resign after the Boston Globe Spotlight team revealed the vast scope of the pedophilia scandal in the church.

My own interest in the story was not simply academic. My brother Hugh was murdered--that's the only word I can use-- by a pedophile in a Catholic school run by the Christian Brothers. The abuse was not only physical, but also emotional. A psychiatrist who treated my brother told my mother, "I have never seen so much ego damage as was done to your son in that Catholic school." After many years of struggling with depression, my brother hanged himself. He walked into his Catholic school a bright, engaging, decent young man, and the school destroyed him.

Until the Vatican can look into its own dark heart, until it can stop rewarding the evil men it protected and enabled, who will listen to its moral pronouncements?

Certainly not me. And certainly not millions of others.

Boston University Journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the author of "Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women."