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Cardinal Bernard Law, former archbishop disgraced in abuse scandal, dies; to get Vatican funeral rites

Cardinal Bernard Law, former archbishop disgraced in abuse scandal, dies; to get Vatican funeral rites
Cardinal Bernard Law of the Archdiocese of Boston participates in Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in April 2002. (John Mottern / Agence-France Presse)

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 Wednesday in Rome, where he had been hospitalized. He was 86.

Pope Francis expressed his condolences Wednesday, and the Vatican announced that he will participate during Law's funeral rites at a Mass on Thursday at St. Peter's Basilica, an honor accorded to all Rome-based cardinals.

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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 2002. "To all those who have suffered from my shortcomings and mistakes, I both apologize and from them beg forgiveness."

Law's successor as archbishop, Cardinal Sean O'Malley, said it was a "sad reality" that Law's legacy will forever be tied to the abuse scandal, when the church "seriously failed" to care for its flock and protect children.

The pope said nothing directly about Law's passing during his weekly general audience Wednesday, and in his condolence letter he made no direct mention of the cardinal's tenure in Boston.

"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.

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% 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 of the scandal, Law remained throughout his life a symbol of the church's widespread failures to protect children.

Law retained 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.

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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.

"Cardinal Law's soft landing in Rome, after his Boston disgrace, reminds us that prelate privilege remains the rule in Catholicism," said Terence McKiernan of BishopAccountability.org, a database of the global scandal in the church.

Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston lawyer who has represented dozens of people who say they were abused by priests, said Law's death reopened wounds among many victims.

"Cardinal Law turned his back on innocent children and allowed them to be sexually abused and then received a promotion in Rome," Garabedian said.

Fifteen years after the scandal broke, the issue of holding bishops accountable for failing to protect children remains a pressing matter for the church. Francis had promised to go after bishops but backed off a proposed Vatican tribunal to prosecute them and opted instead to use existing measures.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP, the main U.S. advocacy group for those who were abused, urged Francis to keep the victims in mind during the funeral and complained that Law doesn't deserve the pomp and circumstance.

"This celebratory focus on abuse enablers like Law must end," said SNAP's Joelle Casteix.

Law is expected to be buried in Rome, O'Malley said. The location hasn't been disclosed, but Law would be entitled to burial at St. Mary Major.

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 graduated from Harvard University in 1953. He was ordained in 1961 and campaigned for civil rights in Mississippi, sometimes traveling in the trunks of cars for safety.

He was named bishop of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau in Missouri, then archbishop of Boston, one of the most prominent and important posts in the U.S.

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