Cardinal Law, former Catholic archbishop of Boston, dies at 86

Credit: Franco Origlia

Credit: Franco Origlia

Cardinal Bernard Law, archbishop emeritus of the Roman Catholic Church in Boston, has died at the age of 86.

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Law was born in Mexico and moved around a lot as a child and young adult.

But it was in the Catholic Church where he found his permanent home and left a legacy that will forever be associated with the priest sex abuse scandal in Boston.

Bernard Law arrived in Boston in 1984 after being appointed archbishop following the death of Cardinal Humberto Mederios. A year later, Pope John Paul II appointed him cardinal.

Law quickly earned a reputation as a staunch conservative, a favorite of the pope, and one of the more influential U.S. cardinals at the Vatican.

Many believed Law would hold this position in Boston until his death but that was not to be the case.

In January of 2002, a sex abuse scandal rocked the church in Boston and shook the faith of parishioners.

The Boston Globe Spotlight team obtained internal church documents that showed for more than 30 years Law and other church leaders knew that priest John Geoghan sexually abused children, yet continued to reassign him from parish to parish where he racked up more allegations of abuse.

An apology from Law was not enough for the people who called for his resignation.

Over the next few months, hundreds of pages of church documents were released showing a long-time pattern of leaders reassigning suspected pedophile priests throughout the diocese and not once alerting law enforcement.

Victims and their lawyers considered Cardinal Law the architect of a system that protected the church rather than the victims.

The crisis exploded not just in Boston, but across the country. In April of 2002, Pope John Paul II summoned all the United States cardinals to the Vatican for a two-day conference on the sex abuse scandal.

The topic then became the focus of the U.S. Conference of Bishops in Dallas in June.

On the eve of that meeting, Law admitted to WFXT that the church's original policies had shortcomings and failures.

"At the time, we did what we thought was the best we could do,” he said.

A judge ordered Law to be deposed in two civil suits brought by the victims of Geoghan and Paul Shanley, another defrocked priest accused of abusing children who was shuffled from parish to parish.

Law testified that he relied on the advice of aides and specialists on whether to reassign abusive priests, and blamed the church's poor-record keeping

“I would agree that the recordkeeping and the institutional memory has to be improved. That was insufficient,” he said.

The crisis reached a boiling point in December, less than a year from that first newspaper report.

By now, hundreds of accusers had come forward and dozens of priests were named.

Law was subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury investigating possible criminal violations by church officials and the calls for his resignation intensified, even within the church, as 58 priests submitted a letter calling for him to step down.

Four days later Law resigned.

"It became clear the most effective way I can serve the church at this moment is to resign,” he said. "To all those who have suffered because of my shortcomings and mistakes, I once again apologize and from them, I beg forgiveness."

The Boston diocese vowed to heal from this wound, and Sean O'Malley -- a bishop who has already handled sex abuse scandals in West Palm Beach and Fall River -- was elevated as the diocese's new archbishop.

The diocese settled more than 500 abuse claims for $85 million.

Geoghan and Shanley were convicted and sentenced to prison, but the state did not criminally charge Law or other church leaders for keeping abusive priests in parishes because no reporting law existed at the time.

Law headed to the Vatican where he remained a cardinal and was made archpriest of the Basilica of St. Mary Major, one of the most important and beautiful churches in Rome. He held the position until his retirement in 2011.

Despite the scandal, Law kept his positions on important Vatican panels and took part in the conclave to elect Pope Benedict, showing that while no longer welcome in Boston he still had a home in the church.

Because he was over the age of 80, he was not eligible to take part in the conclave to elect Pope Francis.

Following the abuse scandal, the U.S. Catholic Church made changes in how it handles allegations and how to better protect children.

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