Cardinal Bernard Law, whose lengthy tenure at the helm of the Catholic Church in Boston became tainted by the priest sexual abuse scandals, has died in Rome, according to multiple Boston news reports. He was 86-year-old.
WCVB-TV quoted sources who confirmed that Law, formerly the Archbishop of Boston, is dead. He became Boston’s 8th bishop in 1984 and rose to be a powerful and influential figure in the American Catholic Church before his fall from grace. “At his height, Law was widely regarded to be America’s most influential prelate,” WCVB reported.
The Boston sex abuse scandals by priests in Law’s diocese were exposed by the Boston Globe newspaper and chronicled in the movie, Spotlight.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Law Passed Away in Italy After a Lengthy Illness & Days of Failing Health
NECN-TV also confirmed, through sources, that Law had passed away on December 20, 2017 in Rome, Italy, where he moved after the sex abuse scandals erupted. The Whispers in the Loggia, a prominent Catholic blog, revealed, “Per reports from three senior Whispers ops, Bernard Cardinal Law died shortly after Midnight Wednesday, 20 December, in Rome.”
The blog’s author, Rocco Palmo, also reported that Law’s funeral might be held by the end of the week and would be in Rome. “While the Archdiocese of Boston has yet to release a formal announcement of the passing, according to custom, Roman Noon (6am Eastern) will see the release of the usual condolence telegram from Pope Francis upon the death of a cardinal,” Palmo wrote. “According to the ops, the traditional funeral rites in St Peter’s Basilica could be held as early as Friday.”
For days, the blog had been reporting that the aged Law was in the midst of “a slow, steady decline” and “was facing his final illness.” CBS Boston disclosed that Law had been battling a “long illness,” although the exact cause of death was not yet released.
2. Law Apologized for the ‘Harm’ Caused to Victims of Priest Sexual Abuse
Law was a well-known figure in Boston cemented in the city’s hierarchy when the priest sexual abuse scandals exploded in part due to dogged reporting by the Boston Globe newspaper and because of civil lawsuits that eventually opened a window into how the Catholic leadership had dealt with the problem. Law was apologetic, but it cost him the Boston position as the scandals engulfed many diocese around the U.S. and throughout the globe.
According to NECN, Cardinal Bernard Law “resigned in disgrace as archbishop in 2002 amid the investigation into the abuse of children in the Boston archdiocese.”
The scandals involved priests who had sexually abused children and were transferred from parish to parish by Catholic leaders. “It is my hope and it is my prayer that my resignation as archbishop might help the Archdiocese of Boston to experience healing, to experience reconciliation and to experience unity,” Law said, according to CBS Boston, “in his last public event in Boston before leaving the United States, never to return.”
One of the worst scandals in Boston involved a priest named John Geoghan; The Boston Globe Spotlight reporters “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,” reported Fox 25 Boston.
As Encyclopedia Brittanica notes, Law eventually owned up to “shortcomings and mistakes” and said he now had a “far deeper awareness of this terrible evil.”
3. Law Was Born in Mexico to a Father Who Was an Army Officer
Law’s Mexican birth endeared him to many Spanish-speaking Catholics. “Law was born in Mexico on November 4, 1931. His father was a U.S. Army officer, and his family moved frequently during his childhood,” New Boston Post reported.
His childhood was a tumultuous one due to the many moves. According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, “Law’s father was a U.S. Army colonel and his mother a concert pianist. He attended high school in the U.S. Virgin Islands. After graduating from Harvard University with a degree in history, he studied for the priesthood and was ordained in 1961. His initial assignment was in Natchez, Mississippi, the poorest diocese in the United States.”
4. Law Was a Powerful Conservative Figure in the Catholic Church, Speaking Out on Abortion & Civil Rights
Ironically, perhaps, before his downfall, Cardinal Bernard Law was known for his stances on moral issues. He was one of the youngest American men to become a Cardinal at the time, CBS Boston said, coming to Boston from Missouri. In Boston, he earned a reputation as a conservative figure in Catholicism.
“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,” reported Fox 25 Boston. “Many believed Law would hold this position in Boston until his death but that was not to be the case.”
Law was an outspoken proponent of abortion and a supporter of civil rights, who “received death threats for the views he expressed while serving as editor of the weekly newspaper of the diocese of Natchez-Jackson,” Brittanica reports. According to CNN, he once demonstrated “in front of the White House to urge President Bill Clinton to sign a bill outlawing late-term abortions.”
5. Law Never Regained His Earlier Standing After the Scandal
Law did not occupy a position of prominence at the Vatican after he resigned. According to New Boston Post, “Pope John Paul II gave him a largely ceremonial role just barely befitting a cardinal below retirement age. He participated in the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.”
In his final years, he eased into retirement and out of the public eye.