ROME — Cardinal Bernard Law, whose time as archbishop of Boston from 1984 to 2002 ended in the scandal and cataclysm of the clergy sex-abuse crisis, died in Rome in the early morning of Dec. 20, after a long period of declining health and a brief hospitalization for heart problems. He was 86.
During much of his time as shepherd of the Archdiocese of Boston, Cardinal Law was one of the most prominent Catholic leaders in the United States and an influential member of the College of Cardinals. That ended in 2002, however, as a result of the clergy sexual-abuse scandal, and controversy followed him even as he departed Boston to become archpriest of the Patriarchal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome in May 2004.
Faced with multiple allegations that he had moved priests accused of child sexual abuse from one assignment to another, he resigned Dec. 13, 2002. It was one of the darkest moments in recent American Catholic life. In his resignation letter, Cardinal Law begged forgiveness from the victims of sexual abuse.
“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,” wrote Cardinal Law. “To all those who have suffered from my shortcomings and mistakes, I both apologize and from them beg forgiveness.”
Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Cardinal Law’s successor as archbishop in Boston, issued a statement early Wednesday morning.
“I recognize that Cardinal Law’s passing brings forth a wide range of emotions on the part of many people,” Cardinal O’Malley declared. “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.”
In his statement, Cardinal O’Malley also acknowledged that what had been a long and genuinely brilliant career of ministry came to an ignominious and tragic end.
“It is a sad reality,” he wrote, “that for many Cardinal Law’s life and ministry is identified with one overwhelming reality, the crisis of sexual abuse by priests. This fact carries a note of sadness because his pastoral legacy has many other dimensions.”
Cardinal Law’s funeral Mass will be held Thursday at 3:30pm Rome time in St. Peter’s Basilica, as is the tradition for Rome-based cardinals.
Pope Francis sent the following message Wednesday after hearing of Cardinal Law's death:
“I have learned of the departure of Cardinal Bernard Francis Law, archpriest emeritus of the Papal Basilica of St. Mary Major, and I wish to express my condolences to the College of Cardinals. 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, whom I entrust to the maternal intercession of the Virgin Mary.”
A Civil-Rights Stalwart
Bernard Law was born in Torréon, Mexico, Nov. 4, 1931. His father was a Catholic U.S. Air Force colonel and his mother a Protestant concert pianist who converted to Catholicism in the 1950s. He grew up attending schools in different countries, including Colombia, before graduating from high school in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, where he first learned journalism at the Virgin Islands Daily News. He graduated from Harvard University in 1953 with a B.A. in medieval history.
Called to the priesthood, he undertook his studies at St. Joseph Seminary in St. Benedict, Louisiana, and then at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Ohio. Ordained a priest for the Diocese of Natchez-Jackson, Mississippi (now the Diocese of Jackson), May 21, 1961, he served in several pastoral assignments, most notably in Natchez, one of the poorest cities in the country. He was named editor of the diocesan newspaper in 1963 and earned many enemies for his outspoken support of the civil-rights movement. His civil-rights activism prompted a number of death threats and resulted in the loss of many subscribers to the diocesan paper.
But his activism fostered close ties with Protestant and Baptist communities. And in 1968, Father Law’s ecumenical outreach led to his appointment as executive director of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs in Washington, D.C. In the wake of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), U.S. Church leaders sought to advance ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.
Cardinal-Archbishop of Boston
On Oct. 22, 1973, Blessed Pope Paul VI appointed him the fourth bishop of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Missouri. He was consecrated a bishop Dec. 5, 1973, moved swiftly to promote ecumenical outreach and was known especially for his pastoral work with immigrants and minorities.
In 1975, he invited all of the members of the Vietnamese religious order the Congregation of Mary Co-Redemptrix into the diocese, after they were forced to flee their native country as refugees.
Law served in the late 1970s as a member of the Vatican Secretariat for Christian Unity and as a consultor to the Commission for Religious Relations With the Jews. He was also chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interracial Affairs. He became internationally recognized as a leader in Catholic-Jewish dialogue and famously took pilgrims to the Nazis’ Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland.
On Jan. 11, 1984, Pope St. John Paul II named Bishop Law the eighth bishop and fifth archbishop of Boston as successor to Cardinal Humberto Medeiros, who had died the previous September. Archbishop Law was installed in Boston March 23, 1984, and immediately joined another prominent archbishop, Cardinal John O’Connor of New York, in condemning publicly the pro-abortion stand of the Catholic Democrat vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro.
On May 25, 1985, Law was created a cardinal with the titular church of Santa Susanna in Rome. As archbishop, he became one of the most powerful of the American members of the College of Cardinals and a determined reformer of the archdiocesan administration.
He established a cabinet structure for administrative affairs and also took the then-unusual step of appointing a layman to the post of archdiocesan chancellor and a woman religious as a judge on the archdiocesan marriage tribunal.
Cardinal Law also confronted the need to close older churches, but he established new ones in the suburbs, as well as to meet the changing demographic realities facing the archdiocese. He erected new churches in the greater Boston area to provide better pastoral care for Catholics of Asian, Haitian and Latin American backgrounds.
Cardinal Law was a trusted figure in Rome and played a role in the major diplomatic breakthrough between the Holy See and Cuba. He visited Cuba in 1985 and 1989, met with Fidel Castro, developed aid programs from the Archdiocese of Boston and encouraged Vatican-Cuban diplomacy that culminated with Pope John Paul’s historic visit to Cuba in 1998. He was also used by the U.S. government and President George H. W. Bush, with whom Cardinal Law was friends, to negotiate the final surrender of President Manuel Noriega of Panama in January 1990 to U.S. forces.
One of America’s most ardent pro-life leaders, Cardinal Law delivered the homily at the funeral of Cardinal O’Connor in 2000 in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, declaring of his late friend, “What a great legacy he has left us in his constant reminder that the Church must be unambiguously pro-life!”
The funeral Mass was attended by Bill and Hillary Clinton. Four years earlier, Cardinal Law had joined protesters in front of the White House, urging then-President Clinton to sign a bill outlawing late-term abortions.
In 1985, Cardinal Law attended the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops convoked by Pope John Paul II to mark the 20th anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council.
During the sessions, he made a memorable intervention on the need for a universal catechism to serve as a reliable compendium of the faith.
“Some of the national catechisms are of great value,” he said, “but … are insufficient. … Young people in Boston and Leningrad wear the same blue jeans; they sing and dance to the same music. There is a need for a single form of catechesis.”
His intervention articulated the thoughts and concerns of many other bishops, including then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and it helped spur what became the commission to draft the Catechism of the Catholic Church that was promulgated in 1992, the first universal catechism since the Council of Trent in the 16th century.
The Clergy Sex-Abuse Scandal
Cardinal Law’s prominence in the Church in the United States made his fall and resignation, as a result of the clergy sex-abuse scandal that had Boston at the epicenter, all the more shocking.
As the horrifying details of sex-abuse cases became more widely known in 2001, Cardinal Law admitted that, after receiving a letter in 1984 that accused the former priest John Geoghan of child molestation, he had reassigned Geoghan to another parish.
The scandal deepened in the next months, and in January 2002, Cardinal Law apologized to Geoghan’s victims. He issued a formal letter of apology that was read across the archdiocese in May, but it was quickly overshadowed by his court appearance in August to testify about a settlement reached between the archdiocese and the victims of clergy abuse. In September, the archdiocese reached a $10-million settlement with 86 of Geoghan’s victims.
In December, Cardinal Law was subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury investigating “possible criminal violations by Church officials who supervised priests accused of sexually abusing children,” and Dec. 13, 2002, he resigned as archbishop.
The next year, his successor, Cardinal O’Malley, and the archdiocese reached a settlement with 552 people that paid out $85 million. The archdiocese has faced additional litigation ever since, even as the U.S. bishops confronted cases in dioceses and archdioceses across the country and worked to implement the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, the “Dallas Charter,” which established norms for handling cases and insuring “safe environments” for children and vulnerable adults.
Though he had officially resigned and never faced criminal charges, Cardinal Law remained the most high-profile figure in media coverage of the sex-abuse scandal.
On May 27, 2004, Pope John Paul II named him archpriest of the Patriarchal Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome. The appointment sparked outrage in the media. Law retired from the post Nov. 21, 2011, upon reaching his 80th birthday. He lived quietly in Rome until his death.
Cardinal O’Malley concluded his statement on the death of Cardinal Law by acknowledging again the pain and anguish that had been caused by the sexual-abuse scandal and Law’s own role in that failure.
“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 communities. I deeply regret that reality and its consequences.”
“Entrusting his soul to the mercy of Christ, I echo the statement released by Cardinal Seán O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston and offer my prayers and condolences to the family and friends of Cardinal Law. Eternal rest grant unto him O Lord,” said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a USCCB press statement.
“At this time, especially, we keep close in our prayer the brave survivors of sexual abuse,” Cardinal DiNardo said. “Their witness would lead to a comprehensive response from the Church in the United States to protect and heal the deep wounds of abuse. I pray they may find strength and peace in the mercy of Christ.”
Matthew E. Bunson is a Register senior editor.