For many Roman Catholics in Boston, the death Wednesday of Cardinal Bernard Law brings to mind a painful chapter in the history of the church, and an experience that tried their faith in the institution. 

It’s difficult to overestimate the significance Cardinal Bernard Law once held as the charismatic leader of what was probably Boston’s most important institution at the time — the Catholic Archdiocese. But for many today — Catholics, non-Catholics, and perhaps most of all, former Catholics — he’s remembered primarily as an enabler of child sexual abuse, who oversaw the relocation of pedophile priests from parish to parish.

Cardinal Law was the scapegoat of the hierarchy," said James Carroll, a former priest and author of many books, including his upcoming novel “The Cloister.” "But he was also its hero, because, after all, he had only done what all bishops were doing and what the Vatican itself had instructed bishops to do.”

And that understanding — that in Boston, not only were children victimized by priests, but that the church hierarchy, with Cardinal Law at the helm, allowed it to happen — continues to test the faith of many Catholics: not necessarily their faith in the religion, but in the institution of the church. Carroll says many decided just to leave.

“And then of course those of us who remain Catholics — I'm a churchgoing Catholic myself — still carry this deep, deep wound, not only of the scandal of the decades-long abuse of children by priests, but at the church's ongoing failure to recognize to reckon with what was laid bare in that scandal,” Carroll said.

Some who remained in the church banded together to found Voice of the Faithful, an organization devoted to supporting the victims of abuse and to help direct change within the church that prevents this sort of thing in the future. Donna Doucette, the group’s executive director, said at first, their plan was to help Cardinal Law in addressing the harm that was done.

“It quickly became obvious that Cardinal Law wasn't interested in help from anybody, especially from laypeople,” Doucette said. She said Voice of the Faithful continues to try to help victims of abuse to heal, in a way she says the church still hasn’t. The effort in the church appears to begin from the premise that we have to bring everybody back to the church if they left and then they'll all be healed. No. Some people are not going to come back to the church. But that does not eliminate your need to offer whatever pathways towards healing that you can.”   

Although many did leave the church, some Catholics, like Tiziana Dearing, decided to become more engaged. Dearing, who’s now a professor at Boston College, became the president of Catholic Charities, an independent nonprofit within the Archdiocese of Boston. And she says they didn’t actually see donations go down as many left the church.

I would argue that there were probably some donors, and I heard from some of these donors when I was running Catholic Charities, who in fact took the money that they might have given to their parish in the past, and, in fact, put it into Catholic social justice work like a Catholic Charities or a Catholic Relief Services instead,” Dearing said.

Dearing said nothing that happened in the clergy sex abuse scandal changes the fact that the faithful are called to help the victimized, the poor and the marginalized.

One parish that’s trying to do that ultimately wound up founding an entirely new church. St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church was among dozens the archdiocese said in the 2004 that they were closing to address their debt. The archdiocese doesn't acknowledge that the sale is related to the scandal, but settlements in those cases led to financial problems. Jon Rogers, a spokesperson for the group of parishioners, says several of the abusive priests were part of the church at some point, and there were victims among church members.

“It really is upsetting to look back and say, 'OK, you know, this community was damaged by these people. And now on top of that they destroyed our church because they had to pay off the coffers that were depleted by the sexual abuse crisis,'” Rogers said.

The parishioners of St. Frances refused to leave, staging a 24-hour vigil in the church that wound up lasting 11 years, before they exhausted their legal challenges and were evicted.

Now, they meet weekly at a rented Freemasons hall. Rogers says while he’s still a Catholic, he’s no longer a Roman Catholic. He blames that, in large part, on Cardinal Bernard Law.