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Cardinal Law, central figure in church abuse scandal, dies

In this Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2002, file photo, Cardinal Bernard Law, right, departs a news conference during the second day of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' annual meeting in Washington. Law, who recently had been hospitalized in Rome, died early Wednesday. Law stepped down under pressure in 2002 over his handling of clergy sex abuse cases. (AP Photo/Ken Lambert, File) (Caption amended by RNS)

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Cardinal Bernard Law, the disgraced former archbishop of Boston whose failures to stop child molesters in the priesthood sparked what would become the worst crisis in American Catholicism, died early Wednesday, the Vatican said. He was 86.

Law had been sick and was recently hospitalized in Rome.

Law was once one of the most important leaders in the U.S. church. He broadly influenced Vatican appointments to American dioceses, helped set priorities for the nation’s bishops and was favored by Pope John Paul II.

But in January 2002, The Boston Globe began a series of reports that used church records to reveal that Law had transferred abusive clergy among parish assignments for years without alerting parents or police. Within months, Catholics around the country demanded to know whether their bishops had done the same.

Law tried to manage the mushrooming scandal in his own archdiocese by first refusing to comment, then apologizing and promising reform. But thousands more church records were released describing new cases of how Law and others expressed more care for accused priests than for victims. Amid a groundswell against the cardinal, including rare public rebukes from some of his own priests, Law asked to resign and the pope said yes.

“It is my fervent prayer that this action may help the archdiocese of Boston to experience the healing, reconciliation and unity which are so desperately needed,” Law said when he stepped down as head of the Boston archdiocese in December of that year. “To all those who have suffered from my shortcomings and mistakes, I both apologize and from them beg forgiveness.”

It was a stunning fall from grace for Law and a rare step for the church, which deeply resists public pressure but could no longer do so given the scope of the crisis. Since 1950, more than 6,500, or about 6 percent of U.S. priests, have been accused of molesting children, and the American church has paid more than $3 billion in settlements to victims, according to studies commissioned by the U.S. bishops and media reports. As the leader of the archdiocese at the epicenter for the scandal, Law remained throughout his life a symbol of the church’s widespread failures to protect children.

Still, Law retained some support in the Vatican. In 2004, he was appointed archpriest of the Basilica of St. Mary Major, one of four principal basilicas in Rome. When John Paul died the next year, Law was among bishops who presided at a memorial Mass for the pontiff in St. Peter’s Basilica. Law also continued for several years to serve in Vatican dicasteries, or policy-making committees, including the Congregation for Bishops, which recommends appointments to the pope. Advocates for victims saw the posts as a sign of favor for Law by church officials unrepentant about abused children.

Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston attorney who has represented dozens of people who say they were sexually abused by priests, said Law’s death has reopened old wounds.

“Many victims are reminded of the pain of being sexually abused upon hearing of Cardinal Law passing away,” Garabedian said. “Cardinal Law turned his back on innocent children and allowed them to be sexually abused and then received a promotion in Rome.”

Alexa MacPherson, who says she was a victim of clergy sex abuse for six years as a small child, had no words of sorrow at the news of Law’s death.

“Good riddance to bad rubbish. I hope the gates of hell are swinging wide to allow him entrance,” she told The Associated Press.

“I won’t shed a tear for him — I might shed a tear for everyone who’s been a victim under him.”

MacPherson’s mother, Barbara Sidorowicz, whose two sons were also abused, also was not mourning him.

“I’m a person, I cannot ever turn my back on my faith, but I can’t find it in my heart to forgive,” she said. “I cry over what happened to my children, but I can’t cry over him. I can’t even get myself to say a prayer for him. He should have been in jail.”

Pope Francis, who met with Law briefly the day after he was elected pope when he went to pray at St. Mary Major, made no comment about Law’s passing during his weekly general audience Wednesday. Francis, though, was expected to send an official telegram of condolence later in the day and celebrate Law’s funeral Mass, an honor accorded to all Rome-based cardinals.

Law had been expected to leave a far different mark on the church.

Born Nov. 4, 1931, in Torreon, Mexico, Law was the only child of a U.S. Air Force colonel and a mother who was a Presbyterian convert to Catholicism. He was educated throughout North and South America and the Virgin Islands before graduating in 1953 from Harvard University. He was ordained in 1961 and campaigned for civil rights in Mississippi, sometimes traveling in the trunks of cars for safety. After a post with the national bishops’ conference, he was named bishop of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau in Missouri, then archbishop of Boston in 1984, a prominent appointment to the country’s fourth-largest diocese.

Law was a prominent voice in Massachusetts and beyond, especially on abortion. He publicly challenged public officials such as Gov. William Weld and Lt. Gov. Paul Cellucci over their support for abortion rights. The cardinal was among a chorus of bishops sharply critical of Geraldine Ferraro, the 1984 Democratic nominee for vice president and a Catholic, over her support for abortion rights. Under President George W. Bush, Law was a regular visitor to the White House.

Within the church, he was devoted to building Catholic-Jewish relations, including leading a delegation of Jewish and other Massachusetts leaders in a 1986 visit to the Auschwitz death camp in Poland. He worked closely with church leaders in Latin America, acting as an unofficial envoy of the pope to Cuba and revolutionary leader Fidel Castro.

However, Law’s legacy has been overshadowed by the scandal. In the notorious case that started the 2002 crisis, as recounted in the move “Spotlight,” the Globe reported that Law and two of his predecessors as Boston archbishop had transferred former priest John Geoghan among parish assignments despite knowing he molested children. More than 130 people eventually came forward to say Geoghan abused them. The archdiocese paid $10 million in settlements with 86 of his victims and their relatives as Law was clinging to his job. It was nowhere near enough to ease the growing anger.

As he announced he would leave, Law asked Boston Catholics, “Please keep me in your prayers.”

(Rachel Zoll reported from New York. Rodrique Ngowi in Holbrook, Mass., contributed to this report.)

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16 Comments

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  • In accepting the Academy Award for Best Picture, “Spotlight” producer Michael Sugar told the world: “Pope Francis, it’s time to protect the children and restore the faith.” Clerical sex abuse survivor and member of the pope’s commission on sex abuse, Peter Saunders, arranged for Spotlight to be screened for members of the commission. Two days later, Saunders was booted off the commission. Yesterday, in the National Catholic Reporter: “Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors has lapsed into an inactive state.” Worse than indifference to the torture of children around the world, Pope Francis has actively protected sexual predators and those who covered-up.

  • Just an Autocrat. More worried for the reputation of the Church than people. Bye Bye….don’t let the door hit you.

  • “sparked what would become the worst crisis in American Catholicism”— The crisis, which is consistent in numerous Countries, was that it was not exposed and dealt with properly by the Church. A fortune was spent by the Church defending these child molesters and child rapers, keeping them out of prison, and moving them around to other locations. And the bigger crisis was that all these young people had to live with trauma and guilt for so many years, while the perpetrators were free to continue to satisfy their sick need to take the innocence from all these children. You might ask- Where was this God they speak of?

  • I pray that God allows him to understand, see and feel the trauma he allowed to continue and the abuse he himself did to victims/survivors.

  • why does the church promote and support rapists? and arguable worse, why do followers DEFEND these people and the church for these actions? totally immoral.

  • Law was an excellent illustration of the true nature of the RCC:

    1. the church teaches that “the church *is* the people”–but Law showed what a preposterous lie that is.
    2. The RCC is all about power over people and protecting the institution.
    3. Like so many institutions, and religious ones especially, the more power you have, the more you are protected, regardless of what you do.

  • It will probably be the first encounter with God since he became a priest. What he did, and how much pomp and splendor he accumulated doing it, made Catholics and friends of Catholicism feel betrayed.

  • It’s crazy isn’t it, and these are adult men we’re dealing with. The problem is worse today.
    Yes call out ,,,,, Where is this God they speak of?

  • It’s really too bad there isn’t a hell, other than the one that pedophile priests and their enablers created.

  • The only way to tell the Pope is for people to walk out and stop contributing. Find a responsible God fearing church and leave this relic of a so called religion to the Dark Ages and the trash pile of history.

  • Jorge Bergoglio continues the practice of protecting the shepherds who bugger the lambs of their flocks. The Vatican recently refused to lift the diplomatic immunity enjoyed by one such predator, wanted both in the United States and Canada. Any deity worthy of worship would consider eternal torment the proper reward for such perfidy.

  • Protected by the Vatican, right up to his death. He was given cushy jobs in Rome to avoid prosecution and civil lawsuits in the US.

    -> “To all those who have suffered from my shortcomings and mistakes, I both apologize and from them beg forgiveness.”

    Some speculative immoral God may forgive…but decent people should not forgive or forget.

  • Everything he did, including the coverups, were aimed tp -lase his sole real parishioner, the Pope. His ambition was ro become “papile” (in serious contention for pope) and that required currying favor in Rome. His lavish treatment in Rome was probably due to having some goods he could have revealed about the lest tqo popes before Francis.

  • “In 2004, he was appointed archpriest of the Basilica of St. Mary Major, one of four principal basilicas in Rome. When John Paul died the next year, Law was among bishops who presided at a memorial Mass for the pontiff in St. Peter’s Basilica. Law also continued for several years to serve in Vatican dicasteries, or policy-making committees, including the Congregation for Bishops, which recommends appointments to the pope.”

    I have to hope that no future bishop/cardinal, who fails his people as clearly as did Law, will receive such support and promotions as did Law after his failures became known. But then, you have to see, that under Church rules and Canon Law, Card. Law did no wrong. He was supposed to keep it all secret. He was supposed to try to rehabilitate a priest. He was supposed to forgive. And nothing in Canon Law apparently had anything to say about a duty to people harmed by priests. The bishop cares for his priests as a father cares for his sons. Children are something like third- or fourth-cousins – or maybe, in-laws, and their parents and local lords (or non-church society) are supposed to care for any damage they suffer, even if it is at the hands of Church representatives.

    I suspect that Pope Francis will celebrate Law’s funeral Mass, carrying through with the theme that either Law has been forgiven or that there is nothing to forgive. I believe in forgiveness. But I do wish I thought the powers-that-be realized clearly that there was a great deal to be forgiven.

  • Re: “The only way to tell the Pope is for people to walk out and stop contributing.” 

    True. For better or worse, the only tool lay Catholics have to coerce change in their Church, is to use the power of the collection plate. Starving the Church for finances will essentially force hierarchs to the bargaining table; they will have no choice in the matter. 

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