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How Cardinal Law and Tooky Amirault sank Swift

TUESDAY, MARCH 26, 2002 — Here’s a bit of political analysis I haven’t heard anywhere else: Bernard Cardinal Law helped bring down Governor Jane Swift. How’s that, you ask? I’ll get to that in a second.

First off, let me preface this column by noting that I don’t address the story of Law and his knowledge that some of his priests sexually abused children. My colleague Kristen Lombardi was a national trend-setter on that story. You can read her stunning stories here. For an account of how Lombardi led the pack, click here. She is, incidentally, a finalist for the prestigious Livingston Award for Young Journalists.

Okay. Here’s what happened. The steady stream of newspaper stories and reports on the local TV news about Law and sexual abuse permeated the psyche of the entire Boston area. Lombardi hinted at that when she wrote of Law’s diminished political standing. But the vastness of the pedophilia story altered the political climate in other ways, too — ways of which Swift was well aware.

Soon it came time for Swift to decide on whether to commute the sentence of Gerald "Tooky" Amirault, convicted as part of the Fells Acres day-care-center child-molestation case back in the 1980s. While the notoriously tough state Parole Board voted 5-0 to commute Amirault’s sentence back in the summer, Swift hesitated to follow through on the board’s recommendation. As late as January, local conventional wisdom held that Swift was holding the announcement back for a very bad day when she needed an important news story to deflect the heat from herself. That never happened. Instead, on February 19, Swift announced her decision not to pardon Amirault. While Swift and her advisers denied it, her decision was undoubtedly influenced by the all-encompassing pedophile-priest story. Dan Kennedy, at, noted that "it was Gerald Amirault’s misfortune to come up for commutation at precisely the moment when the Catholic Church’s brutal mishandling of pedophile priests has once again made child molestation a front-page story." Swift claimed that she had, in effect, conducted her own investigation of the evidence and concluded Amirault did not merit commutation.

Everything would have been fine for Swift — her decision probably would have played well in a general election against state Democrats — had there not been a Mitt Romney. Swift’s decision came smack in the middle of the Winter Olympics, when Mitt Romney’s star was at its zenith. And state Republican activists — many of whom strongly believe the Amiraults were innocent — had grown disenchanted with Swift. A nascent Romney movement had already sprung up; Swift’s decision put many Republicans over the top. One of the best examples is that of tax-cutting advocate Barbara Anderson, who had been a loyal ally of Swift’s until just before the Amirault decision. The day Swift announced her decision, Anderson told the Boston Globe, "I simply don’t believe it. I cannot imagine they’re doing something so incredibly wrong."

Anderson and other state Republicans angered over the Amirault case helped form a cadre of supporters eager to get Romney into the race and Swift out of it. What looked like a solid political decision when the governor faced no primary opponent — keeping Amirault in the clink — became a poor political decision when the specter of Romney’s return materialized.

What Romney will do about Amirault remains a mystery — like most of his positions. In retrospect, it looks as if Swift did the right thing on Amirault — he comes up for parole in 2004 — for the wrong reason, and she paid the price for it. That’s why Swift can blame Law, in part, for her demise.

Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]

Issue Date: March 26, 2002
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