VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis prayed Thursday for a merciful final judgment for Cardinal Bernard Law, symbol of the Catholic Church’s failure to protect children from pedophile priests and its arrogance in safeguarding its own reputation at all costs.
In a final blessing at Law’s funeral Mass, Francis blessed his coffin with incense and holy water at the foot of the back altar of St. Peter’s Basilica and recited the ritual prayer commending him to God.
‘‘May he be given a merciful judgment so that redeemed from death, freed from punishment, reconciled to the Father, carried in the arms of the Good Shepherd, he may deserve to enter fully into everlasting happiness in the company of the eternal King together with all the saints.’’
The dean of the college of cardinals, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, celebrated the funeral Mass, along with some 30 other cardinals, and eulogized Law without making any mention of the scandal. Following the typical protocol, Francis arrived at the end of the service to deliver the final prayer.
US Ambassador-designate Callista Gingrich and her husband, Newt, as well as some other members of the diplomatic corps were on hand in the pews, along with the Vatican foreign minister, Archbishop Paul Gallagher.
Turnout was otherwise limited, with the basilica ushers stacking extra rows of empty seats before the Mass began.
One of the opening prayers reads: ‘‘O God, who chose your servant Cardinal Bernard Law from among your priests and endowed him with pontifical dignity in the apostolic priesthood, grant, we pray, that he may also be admitted to their company forever.’’
Law, who died Wednesday at age 86, resigned in disgrace as archbishop of Boston in 2002 after revelations that he covered up for dozens of priests who raped and sexually molested children, moving them to different parishes without telling parents or police.
The scandal, exposed by The Boston Globe and memorialized in the Oscar-winning film ‘‘Spotlight,’’ then spread throughout the United States and world, with thousands of people from all continents coming forward in ensuing years with claims their priests sexually abused them when they were children.
St. John Paul II’s decision to promote Law to head a major Rome basilica in 2004 reinforced the impression that the Vatican — which had turned a blind eye to abuse for decades — still hadn’t grasped the scale of the problem, the trauma it caused its victims, and the moral credibility it had lost as a result.
Francis has inherited that legacy and has promised ‘‘zero tolerance’’ for abuse. But his own record has been marked by questionable appointments, a reneged proposal to create a Vatican tribunal to prosecute negligent bishops like Law, and giving the issue less urgency than his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.
Just this week, Francis’ much-hyped commission of experts to advise the church on keeping children safe was allowed to lapse after its initial three-year mandate.
Sodano was John Paul’s powerful secretary of state at the time of Law’s downfall and would have been instrumental in the decisions the Vatican took in those years to deal with the burgeoning scandal.
But Sodano himself has a tainted legacy, having been a key supporter of the Rev. Marcial Maciel, the drug-addicted founder of the Legion of Christ religious order who sexually abused his seminarians and fathered three children. It was only after John Paul died and Sodano was sidelined that Benedict ordered Maciel to live a lifetime of ‘‘penance and prayer’’ for his crimes.
The funeral was not broadcast on the Vatican’s live stream as anticipated, although official statements on Law’s funeral never explicitly stated that it would be viewable online. Vatican spokesman Greg Burke wrote in an e-mail that since Francis became pope five years ago, funerals for cardinals are not live streamed.
“Cardinals funerals under the pontificate of Francis -- now almost five years on -- have never been livestreamed,’’ he wrote. “Your experts got it wrong.”
Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley did not attend the funeral, having just returned from a Rome visit in which he spent some time with Law in the hospital.
According to the AP, none of the religious leaders spoke about Law and the child sexual abuse crisis.
For the Boston lawyer who forced the Catholic Church to disclose the practice of shuffling predatory priests to unsuspecting parishioners, by choosing to stay silent Francis missed an opportunity to fully demonstrate his commitment to prevent abuse and helping those already abused.
It’s unfortunate that Pope Francis did not take the opportunity to help victims heal by addressing the issue of clergy sexual abuse,’’ Mitchell Garabedian said. “He had the opportunity to help victims heal and to show that he was actually a progressive pope as he represented himself to be… His silence speaks volumes.”
Thomas H. Groome, a Boston College professor of theology and religious education, repeated what he has been saying for the past week when interviewed by reporters – Law badly mishandled the crisis and wrongly allowed innocent children to be victimized by his actions and inactions.
The final services for Law, Groome said, was not the place to review his mistakes. “This is not a celebration of this man’s life. And, it’s not a tribunal - it’s a funeral,’’ he said. “It’s not Pope Francis endorsing the life, and especially the behavior of Bernard Cardinal Law.”
He said by attending Law’s service, the pope was fulfilling his role as the leader of a faith that believes both that “there is no unforgivable sin” and that redemption is always possible, no matter the extent of harm caused to others.
The church teaches that “every repentant sinner can be forgiven – at least by God,’’ he said. “Pope Francis is representing the Catholic faith at its best.”