Bernard Law, the embattled former Boston cardinal whose legacy amid the clergy sex abuse scandal ushered in a painful era for the nation and the Roman Catholic Church, has died in Rome at age 86, according to media reports.
Cheryl Fiandaca of WBZ-TV, CBS4 in Boston reported Law died at a hospital in Rome after a long illness. The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald also reported his death in Rome, where Law had moved two years after resigning from his position in Boston.
Pope John Paul II appointed Law as Archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome in 2004. He left the position upon reaching the age of 80 in November 2011.
But much of Law's history is remembered for his time in Boston. At the time he resigned in disgrace from that city's archdiocese in 2002, Law was the nation's senior cardinal. His initial years as head of the Boston clergy were met with widespread approval as he took firm stands against legalized abortion and traveled throughout the world, bringing messages of hope to downtrodden people during catastrophes.
He once wore mountaineering dress for a trip on the Dunajec River during a 1986 Catholic-Jewish pilgrimage to Poland, and visited Mexico City after the historic earthquake of 1985.
But then his legacy crumbled amid the clergy's sex abuse scandal. Church records at the time showed that he and other Boston officials transferred priests from parish to parish despite records of abuse. Revelations followed that hundreds of priests across the nation may have abused thousands of young people over the previous 40 years.
Law was the Archbishop of Boston from 1984 until his resignation. One of the priests in his charge was alleged to have raped or molested 130 children; Law was heavily criticized for his handling of that priest and others. "I am indeed profoundly sorry," he later said.
Critics at the time of his resignation accused Law and other church officials of trying to cover up the scandal. But Law told USA TODAY in a 2002 interview that at the time, he was not aware of the extent of the crisis nor of its "ripple effect" on victims, families and the church.
"I learned that I didn't know a lot of things. The extent of this thing — I did not know that. I have learned much more painfully of the impact this has had on others," Law said in the USA TODAY interview.
Despite past advice that pedophile priests could be rehabilitated, he said he no longer believed that it is "proper and correct" to have anyone in the public ministry who is guilty of what he calls "this sin and crime." He said, "That risk cannot be taken."
In the aftermath of the news of the scandal, Law spent week meeting with victims and families. He also issued his most public and contrite apology. "I think it lies in the human heart to want unity and peace," he says, "but other things get in the way."
Some victims who met with Law forgave him. Others would not.
"I don't believe he wasn't aware of the damage," Mark Keane told USA TODAY in the 2002 story. Keane was one of 86 plaintiffs who said he was molested by convicted abuser John Geoghan, a defrocked priest who was sent to prison. "People knew then that if you rape a child, you damage the child for life."
Law was a pivotal figure in the civil rights movement in Mississippi, where he lived from 1961 to 1973. When civil rights activist Medgar Evers was assassinated in 1963, Law was among the first to console the family. Those who knew him during that time remember a passionate priest who visited burned black churches, stood against unlawful imprisonment and pushed political leaders to get involved fighting for positive change.
Law was the editor of the Mississippi Register, the now-defunct diocesan newspaper, a position he used to push for passage of the Civil Rights Act and try to influence moderate change in race relations. He faced multiple death threats and was forced to move because of danger to his life.
In the aftermath of Law’s 2002 resignation because of the child molestation scandal that rocked the Catholic church, Mississippi leaders struggled to come to terms with the two realities.
"I'll always be grateful to him for the great constructive work he did in Mississippi in the 1960s in creating a more satisfactory racial climate in the state," former Gov. William Winter said at the time. "He actually got me involved in some activities and helped me open up my understanding to some of the issues we were confronted with at that time."
Law, who was a strong conservative voice within the Catholic church, developed deep relationships with Mississippi’s more liberal and progressive factions. The late Bill Minor, a renowned journalist who covered the civil rights movement in Mississippi, became one of Law’s closest friends in the state.
"Perhaps he didn't handle it as well as he should have," Minor told the Clarion Ledger at the time of Law’s resignation in 2002. "Hindsight is always easier than foresight. Bernie Law is still a great man in my estimation.
"The fact that he offered his resignation on two earlier occasions this year and the pope's refusal to accept them says a lot about the type of person we all believe him to be."
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