A former Roman Catholic Church cardinal is dead at age 86 and will receive a full Catholic funeral per the Vatican’s wishes. Normally, one would not raise an eyebrow at that, but the cardinal in this case is Cardinal Bernard Law. You’ll remember him as Boston’s archbishop at the center of the priest sexual assault controversy. Law looked the other way as Boston priests molested children.
The Vatican described the debacle as the worst crisis in American Catholicism. The entire incidence was made famous by the Oscar-award-winning movie Spotlight, which portrayed how The Boston Globe newspaper broke the scandal. The Globe’s Spotlight team is described as “the oldest continuously operating newspaper investigative journalist unit in the United States”. The team investigated reports of child sex abuse by numerous Boston Roman Catholic priests.
Law was beloved and was considered by Catholic Bostonians as a spiritual leader for their city and indeed was a prominent figure in the U.S. Catholic church. Boston is one of the largest cities for Catholicism, boasting nearly 2 million Catholics, who were stunned by Law’s involvement.
Law tried to hide the scandal. When the newspaper covered it, he gave a terse “no comment.” When The Globe presented irrefutable evidence, Law vowed church reform. When the full scandal broke, thousands of records showed exactly how Law had been instrumental in moving priests from parish to parish to keep their secrets.
He resigned in disgrace in 2002, but after the Boston incidents, the Vatican relocated Law to Rome. He spent the last few years running a basilica. Amazingly, he held considerable power and influence in the Vatican.
The Boston Globe ran a series of front-page articles that talked about how Law had knowingly transferred child molester priests from parish to parish to hide their crimes. Law and other church officials never notified parents or turned priests over to the police.
When the articles broke, many American Catholics demanded justice. It was soon revealed that similar priest shielding was a worldwide epidemic—not only had it occurred in America, it had happened in Ireland, Australia, Belgium and South America, to name a few.
Alexa MacPherson said priests abused her for six years. She says she will not shed a single tear for Law, and hopes that “the gates of hell are swinging wide to allow him entrance.”
Cardinal Sean O’Malley took over for Law as archbishop of the Boston diocese. He said that the church, under Law’s guidance, seriously failed to protect its congregation, particularly children. O’Malley lamented Law’s death, saying that it was particularly sad that Law’s legacy in the church would forever be a negative one.
Pope Francis became pope long after the abuse scandal broke, but Catholics around the world are keeping a close eye on how he has handled the church and its shielding of pedophiles. Law’s funeral mass is set for Thursday in Rome at St. Peter’s Basilica and will be presided over by the Pope—as it has been for all Rome-based cardinals for centuries.
Many Catholics feel that Law does not deserve the full funeral rites afforded a bishop, given his key role in the abuse scandal. In the last several decades, about 6 percent of American priests have been accused of child molestation. The problem is that there are 6,500 priests, so there are literally hundreds who have molested kids. Astonishingly, over $3 billion has been paid so far for legal settlements, a figure reported by the U.S. church itself.
American Catholics are amazed that the Vatican maintained support of Law. He laid low from 2002 to 2004 but then was appointed to run the Basilica of St. Mary Major. It is a major and prominent position because the basilica is one of four main basilicas in Rome. In 2005, Law presided over Pope John Paul II’s funeral as one of the bishops. It was a high honor bestowed on Law and many Catholics were astonished by the Vatican’s decision to do so.
More importantly, victims in Boston and around the world considered it a slap in the face that Law would have continued influence in Rome. For many, it made the church seem unrepentant for its transgressions.