Cardinal Bernard F. Law, in an emotional encounter with men and women whose lives were shattered by a priest accused of being a serial child molester, last night begged forgiveness from about 75 alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse and their supporters.
Some of the victims cried as they told Law how their lives had been affected by the Rev. Joseph E. Birmingham, who is alleged to have molested at least 50 boys over a 29-year career as a priest in the Boston archdiocese. Others expressed anger that the church had failed to oust Birmingham even after parents complained about his behavior.
At one point, when organizers of the session sought to honor people who had lost family members to suicide as a result of abuse by Birmingham, six people stood up.
''This is the first time I ever heard him say publicly he was at fault, and ask forgiveness,'' said Thomas Blanchette, an alleged victim of Birmingham who said afterward that he told a dramatic story about confronting Birmingham at the priest's deathbed about his abusive behavior.
Law, wearing a simple black cassock and sitting at a table in a church basement, appeared contrite and repentant. He spoke for about 10 minutes, and then spent another two hours listening to the stories of abuse victims and their families and answering questions.
''Apology is a weak thing, but I don't know how else to begin,'' he said. ''I beg your forgiveness and I understand that can be a very difficult thing to give because the hurt is so deep, the memory so raw, and the wound so searing.''