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. The scandal was recounted in detail by the Oscar-winning film “Spotlight.”
Law’s successor as archbishop, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, said Wednesday it was a “sad reality” that Law’s legacy will forever be tied to the abuse scandal since he led the Boston archdiocese at a time “when the church seriously failed” in its job to care for its flock and protect children.
“I offer my sincere apologies for the harm they suffered, my continued prayers and my promise that the archdiocese will support them in their effort to achieve healing,” O’Malley said in a statement.
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 suggesting that 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 2002. “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 characteristically resists public pressure but could no longer hold out 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 media reports and studies commissioned by the U.S. bishops. As the leader of the archdiocese at the epicenter of the scandal, Law became a symbol of the church’s widespread failures to protect children.
He 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.
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.
Following his resignation as archbishop, 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 those who presided at a memorial Mass for the pontiff in St. Peter’s Basilica. Law also continued 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 tone-deaf sign of loyalty to Law by church officials unrepentant about abused children.
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.
In a letter of condolences later, he made no mention of Law’s tenure in Boston and referred only to his position as the retired archpriest of St. Mary Major.
“I raise prayers for the repose of his soul, that the Lord, God who is rich in mercy, may welcome him in His eternal peace, and I send my apostolic blessing to those who share in mourning the passing of the cardinal,” Francis wrote.
Francis is due to preside over funeral rites at a Mass celebrated Thursday at 3:30 p.m. in St. Peter’s Basilica, an honor accorded to all Rome-based cardinals. The dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, will be the lead celebrant.
Law was expected to be buried in Rome, O’Malley said. The location hasn’t been disclosed, but Law would be entitled to be buried at St. Mary Major.