Bernard Law Given Prominent Funeral Role

Times Staff Writer

Cardinal Bernard Law, the former archbishop of Boston who became a focal point of the Roman Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal in the United States, won a coveted role Thursday to preside at one of a handful of funeral Masses for Pope John Paul II.

The appointment, announced by Archbishop Piero Marini, the Vatican’s master of liturgical celebrations, appeared to catch other U.S. cardinals by surprise. It stunned sexual abuse victims’ advocates.

One church source close to the developments said here Thursday that cardinals had not been consulted about Law’s participation and that they were simply handed the list of assignments. “It was already printed,” he said on condition that he remain anonymous.

Law was forced to resign as archbishop of Boston in 2002 after nearly 20 years in the post, amid accusations that he covered up priests’ sexual abuse of children. He will preside at one of eight Masses that will begin Saturday after today’s main farewell and funeral Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica.


The Vatican said Law and the others were chosen because it was an ancient custom to entrust one of the eight subsequent Masses to a particular group with close ties to the pope. For example, Saturday’s Mass is to be said on behalf of the “faithful of Vatican City.” Law, in his post-Boston role here as archpriest of St. Mary Major Basilica, will preside Monday on behalf of the four main basilicas in Rome.

Law, 73, was appointed last year to the largely administrative post at the architecturally stunning St. Mary Major, which attracts many tourists. He remains a cardinal and is eligible to vote for a new pope.

Custom notwithstanding, Law’s role in the ceremonies was seen by some Americans, particularly in Boston, as being blind to the toll of the abuse scandal.

“It’s an unbelievably insensitive move that simply rubs salt into the already very deep wounds of thousands of abuse victims and American Catholics,” said David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. “It’s just inconceivable to me that any church official could be so out of touch. It borders on cruelty.”

Clohessy later issued a statement calling on Law to not take any public role in the rituals. “If he genuinely wants to honor the pope, he should avoid causing distractions to the solemn ceremonies,” he said.

Attempts to reach Law on Thursday through the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and by telephoning his Vatican office were unsuccessful.

When he resigned as Boston archbishop, Law begged forgiveness from “all those who have suffered from my shortcomings and mistakes.”

Disclosure that the Boston archdiocese had transferred priests known to sexually abuse minors from parish to parish enraged the laity and touched off inquiries elsewhere. U.S. dioceses paid hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements. Some sold property to pay the bill and others declared bankruptcy.


Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington indicated that Law’s role in the Masses had come as a surprise to him. “I haven’t really had a chance to think about it,” he said.

“I’ve great regard for Cardinal Law. He’s a friend. He’s a good man. He’s gone through a difficult time. I think there are many who feel he is responsible for the difficult time, but who knows?” McCarrick said.

Several cardinals refused to comment Thursday. “The selection is not for me to comment on,” Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia said. Cardinal Edward Egan of New York also demurred. “I won’t get into that one, eh?” Tod Tamberg, an aide to Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, said, “Cardinal Mahony’s not got anything to say.”

In Boston, Law’s upcoming role in choosing a new pope infuriates many lay Catholics, said James Post, a Boston University management professor who is president of Voice of the Faithful, an organization born during the abuse crisis that calls for increased lay leadership.


“They know that something is fundamentally wrong. It offends our moral sense of right and wrong to have him casting a vote,” Post said.

On the other hand, he added, “some people are saying he has been through hell and will bring the wisdom of that experience into the conclave. Some people are hoping he will speak to the need of finding a pope that will be stronger in responding to the global sex abuse issues. Personally, I think that is a stretch.”

Father Walter Cuenin, pastor of Our Lady Help of Christians Church in Newton, Mass., said Law’s visibility in Rome this week revived painful memories.

“I think there is also -- without wanting to detract from the pope -- there is a feeling among some American Catholics that certainly the Holy See didn’t seem to manage this crisis or get involved in it in depth, and kind of missed the mark,” he said.


Church attendance and Sunday offerings in the Boston archdiocese had already plummeted when 82 parishes last year were ordered closed or merged. Law’s successor, Archbishop Sean Patrick O’Malley, has said the order was unrelated to the $85-million settlement the archdiocese agreed to pay to more than 500 abuse victims. But many Boston-area Catholics were outraged by the move, and the archdiocese last week reversed its decision to shutter a Weymouth church, which parishioners had occupied for seven months.

Also as a result of the scandal, the archdiocese was forced to sell its chancery and surrounding property where Law lived.


Times staff writer Elizabeth Mehren in Boston contributed to this report.