Cardinal Law, the central figure in the church abuse scandal, dies

VATICAN city – 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.

The law had been sick and was recently admitted to the hospital in Rome.

The law was once one of the most important leaders in the AMERICAN church. He is largely influenced Vatican appointments to U.s. dioceses, is the cradle of the priorities for the nation’s bishops, and he was by Pope John Paul II.

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

The law has tried to manage the explosive growth scandal in his own archdiocese, by first refusing to comment, then apologizing and promising reform. But thousands of church records were released describing new cases of how the Law and the others were more concern for the accused priests than to the victims. In the midst of a tidal wave against the cardinal, including a rare public rebuke of a number of his own priests, the Law asked to resign and the pope said yes.

“It is my prayer that this action may help the archdiocese of Boston to experience the healing, reconciliation and the unity that we need,” Law said when he stepped down as head of the archdiocese of Boston in December of that year. “To all those who have suffered from my shortcomings and mistakes, I apologize and they beg for forgiveness.”

It was a stunning fall from grace for Law, and a rare step for the church, which is deeply opposed to the pressure of public opinion, but could no longer do so, having regard to the magnitude of the crisis. Since 1950, more than 6,500, or about 6 percent of U.S. priests have been accused of the murder of 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 the media. As the leader of the archdiocese in the epicentre of the scandal, the Law remained throughout his life a symbol of the church’s widespread failures to protect children.

Still, the Right to retain some support in the Vatican. In 2004 he was appointed archpriest of the Basilica of St. Maria maggiore, one of the four major basilicas in Rome. When John Paul died the following year, the Law was, among the bishops, who presided at a memorial Mass for the pope in St. peter’s basilica. The law also continued for several years to serve in the Vatican dicasteries, or policy-making committees, including the Congregation for Bishops, which recommends appointments to the pope. Lawyers for victims saw the messages as a sign of grace for the Law by the church officials made about abused children.

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

“Many victims think of the pain of being sexually abused in the hear of Cardinal Law to pass,” Garabedian said. “Cardinal Law turned his back on innocent children, and they could be sexually abused and then he received a promotion in Rome.”

The law was expected to leave a very different mark on the church.

Born Nov. 4, 1931, in Torreon, Mexico, the 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 in North and South America and the Virgin Islands before graduating in 1953 from the University of Harvard. He was ordained a priest in 1961 and campaigned for civil rights in Mississippi, sometimes traveling in the trunks of cars for the security. After a post with the national conference of bishops, he was appointed bishop of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau in Missouri, then archbishop of Boston, in 1984, a prominent appointment to be the country’s fourth-largest diocese.

The law was a prominent voice in Massachusetts and beyond, particularly on abortion. He publicly challenged officials such as Gov. William Weld and Lt. Gov. Paul Cellucci about their support for abortion rights. The cardinal was among a chorus of bishops ‘ strong criticism of Geraldine Ferraro, the 1984 Democratic candidate for vice-president and a Catholic, about her support for abortion rights. Under President George W. Bush, the Law was a regular visitor of the White House.

Within the church, he was dedicated to building Catholic-Jewish relations, including leading a delegation of Jewish and other Massachusetts leaders in 1986, a visit to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. He worked closely with the leaders of the church in Latin America, which acts as a non-official envoy of the pope to Cuba, revolutionary leader Fidel Castro.

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

When he announced that he would leave, prescribed by Law, Boston Catholics, “keep me in your prayers.”


Zoll contributed to this story from New York.

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