Cardinal Law, whose legacy was marred by sex abuse scandal, dies

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VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Cardinal Bernard F. Law, who had been
one of the United States’ most powerful and respected bishops until his legacy
was blemished by the devastating sexual abuse of minors by priests in his
Archdiocese of Boston, died early Dec. 20 in Rome at the age of 86.

Before the abuse scandal forced his resignation in 2002,
Cardinal Law had been a leading church spokesman on issues ranging from civil
rights to international justice, from abortion to poverty, from Catholic-Jewish
relations and ecumenism to war and peace.

Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston said in a statement Dec.
20, “As archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Law served at a time when the church
failed seriously in its responsibilities to provide pastoral care for her
people, and with tragic outcomes failed to care for the children of our parish

Cardinal O’Malley also recognized that his predecessor’s
death “brings forth a wide range of emotions on the part of many people. I
am particularly cognizant of all who experienced the trauma of sexual abuse by
clergy, whose lives were so seriously impacted by those crimes, and their
families and loved ones. To those men and women, I offer my sincere apologies
for the harm they suffered, my continued prayers and my promise that the archdiocese
will support them in their effort to achieve healing.”

Although full details of the funeral had not been released,
Cardinal O’Malley said Cardinal Law would be buried in Rome, where he had his
last assignment.

Bernard Francis Law was born on Nov. 4, 1931, in Torreon,
Mexico, where his father, a career Air Force officer, was then stationed. He
attended schools in New York, Florida, Georgia, and Barranquilla, Colombia, and
graduated from Charlotte Amalie High School in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands.

He graduated from Harvard University in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, before entering St. Joseph Seminary in St. Benedict, Louisiana
in 1953. He later studied at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Worthington,

He was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Natchez-Jackson
(now Jackson), Mississippi, in 1961. After serving two years as an assistant
pastor, he was made editor of the Mississippi Register, the diocesan newspaper.
At the same time, he held several other diocesan posts, including director of
the family life bureau and spiritual director at the minor seminary.

A civil rights activist, he joined the Mississippi
Leadership Conference and Mississippi Human Relations Council. He received
death threats for his strong editorial positions on civil rights in the
Mississippi Register.

His work for ecumenism in the Deep South in the 1960s
received national attention, and in 1968 he was tapped for his first national
post, as executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Ecumenical and
Interreligious Affairs.

In 1973 Blessed Pope Paul VI named him bishop of
Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Missouri. He made headlines in 1975 when, amid an
influx of Vietnamese refugees arriving in the United States, he arranged to resettle
in his diocese all 166 refugee members of the Vietnamese religious order,
Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix.

Continuing his ecumenical work, he formed the Missouri
Christian Leadership Conference. He was made a member of the Vatican’s Secretariat
(now Pontifical Council) for Promoting Christian Unity and served in 1976-81 as
a consultor to its Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. He also
chaired the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs in
the late 1970s.

In 1981, when the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of
the Faith approved a special program for welcoming into the Catholic priesthood
former U.S. Episcopalian priests who became Catholics, he was named the Vatican
delegate to develop the program and oversee it. In the program’s first year 64
former Episcopalian priests applied for acceptance.

St. John Paul II made him archbishop of Boston in January
1984 and the following year made him a cardinal.

Soon after his arrival in Boston, Cardinal Law became
well-known for his work for immigrants and minorities.

He often led the Massachusetts bishops in struggles to
maintain or increase funding for programs for the poor and most vulnerable
segments of the population and in the fight against abortion and the death

A constant advocate of the right to life of the unborn, he
denounced the pro-abortion stance of the Democratic vice-presidential
candidate, Geraldine Ferraro — a Catholic, during the 1984 presidential race.

While he called abortion “the critical issue of the
moment,” in 1995 he urged a moratorium on abortion clinic protests after a
gunman attacked two Boston clinics, killing two people and wounding five.

It was his proposal for a worldwide catechism, in a speech
at the 1985 extraordinary Synod of Bishops, that led to development of the
“Catechism of the Catholic Church.” Cardinal Law also oversaw the
first drafting of an English translation of the catechism — and unsuccessfully
defended the inclusive-language version that the Vatican ultimately rejected
and ordered rewritten.

The collapse of Cardinal Law’s authority and status began in
January 2002 with the criminal trial of serial child molester John Geoghan, who
had been allowed to stay in active ministry for three decades before he was
finally removed and subsequently laicized, and the court-ordered release of
archdiocesan files on Geoghan to the media.

The released files showed that when complaints against
Geoghan were made in one parish he would be removed, but soon assigned to
another parish. The files gave firsthand proof of how such complaints were
handled and demonstrated a pattern of protecting and transferring abusive
priests by the cardinal and his aides.

In the first weeks following the revelations, Cardinal Law
publicly apologized on several occasions and announced a series of major policy
changes — most importantly, removing permanently from ministry any priest ever
credibly accused of sexual abuse of a minor and turning over to district
attorneys the names of all priests against whom any abuse allegation had been

A series of investigative reports on the issue by the Boston
Globe made national headlines and other newspapers and television news teams
across the nation began investigating how their local dioceses dealt with
abusive priests.

At the time of his resignation from the Boston Archdiocese,
Cardinal Law was 71 years old and, as a cardinal since 1985, the senior member
of the U.S. Catholic hierarchy. His resignation did not affect his standing as
an active cardinal. He retained membership on several Vatican congregations
and, before he turned 80, he entered the 2005 conclave that elected Pope
Benedict XVI.

St. John Paul appointed Cardinal Law in 2004 to be the new
archpriest of the Basilica of St. Mary Major, one of the four major basilicas
of Rome.

While he oversaw the administration and liturgical life of
the basilica until his retirement in 2011, he kept a relatively low profile in
the city.

His death leaves the College of Cardinals with 217 members,
including 120 cardinals who are under the age of 80 and eligible to vote in a
conclave to elect a new pope.

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