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Cardinal Bernard Law, 86; left Boston in wake of clergy abuse scandal

Cardinal Bernard F. Law greeted colleagues in 2006 in Rome.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File

Cardinal Bernard F. Law, whose 19-year tenure as head of the Archdiocese of Boston ended in his resignation after it was revealed he had failed to remove sexually abusive priests from the ministry, setting off a scandal that reached around the world, died Tuesday. He was 86.

The Vatican’s newspaper confirmed his death early Wednesday.

Cardinal Law will be buried in Rome, according to a statement from his successor, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley.

O’Malley wrote that Cardinal Law’s passing “brings forth a wide range of emotions on the part of many people.”

“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,” he said.


Boston’s eighth bishop and fourth archbishop, Cardinal Law was the highest-ranking official in the history of the US church to leave office in public disgrace. Although he had not broken any laws in the Commonwealth — clergy were not required to report child sex abuse until 2002 — his actions led to a sense of betrayal among many Boston Catholics that the church is still dealing with today.

The abuse scandal was “the greatest tragedy to befall children — ever” in the Commonwealth, the attorney general’s office said in 2003, and “as archbishop, and therefore chief executive of the archdiocese, Cardinal Bernard Law bears ultimate responsibility for the tragic treatment of children that occurred during his tenure. But by no means does he bear sole responsibility.”

The attorney general’s office said the abuse extended over six decades and involved at least 237 priests and 789 children; of those, 48 priests and other archdiocesan employees were alleged to have abused children while Law was leader of the Boston archdiocese.


In 2004, after Cardinal Law’s resignation, Pope John Paul II appointed him archpriest of the Patriarchal Basilica of St. Mary Major, and he moved to Rome. The controversial appointment was a reminder of the regard in which the Vatican held Cardinal Law.

Widely seen as a Vatican loyalist and champion of church orthodoxy, he had been a favorite of John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who later became Pope Benedict XVI. At a bishops synod in Rome in 1985, Cardinal Law proposed the publication of a new Catholic catechism. The result was the first universal catechism since the Council of Trent, in the 16th century. Cardinal Law was given responsibility for drafting the catechism’s English translation.

Cardinal Law was just 41 when he was named bishop of Missouri’s Springfield-Cape Girardeau diocese. Few US priests become bishops before 45. Another sign of Vatican favor was Cardinal Law’s having served as archbishop for only a little more than a year before receiving his red hat. The archdiocese’s first cardinal, William H. O’Connell, had served four years, Cardinal Richard J. Cushing 14, and Cardinal Humberto J. Medeiros three.

Harvard educated and the onetime editor of a diocesan newspaper, in Mississippi, Cardinal Law appeared to be a departure from a more insular, less media-attuned church, when he was named archbishop of Boston in 1984. Yet in a key respect, he was a throwback: Cardinal Law believed in being in charge and staying in touch. Whenever a priest in the archdiocese died, Cardinal Law would attend the funeral. He also would go to great lengths to visit hospitalized priests and their relatives.


Cardinal Law’s former secretary once joked that the worst torture for his boss would be being bound up with a phone ringing just beyond his reach. For a time, he used a helicopter to get around the 2,500-square-mile archdiocese. He introduced a cabinet system to administer the archdiocese, as well as a fifth episcopal region, Merrimack. The other regions are South, West, Central, and North.

Cardinal Law had the solemn manner and stately bearing of one accustomed to deference. According to a parishioner of one of the most notorious sexually abusive priests, the Rev. Paul Shanley, Cardinal Law was dismissive when she warned him about Shanley’s behavior. “See my bishops,” he said. “That’s why I have them.” As a young man, he had thought of the Foreign Service as a career; and with his thatch of white hair, thick build, square jaw, and deliberate speech, he had the distinguished appearance and demeanor of a banker or diplomat.

More than that, Cardinal Law conveyed the sense of being someone conscious of having such an appearance and manner. He may have lacked the colorfulness and common touch of Cardinal Cushing; but he shared Cushing’s comfort with being in the spotlight. This contrasted sharply with Cardinal Law’s immediate predecessor, Cardinal Medeiros, who had been ill at ease with the public aspects of being a prelate. Cardinal Law embraced those duties.


Where Medeiros had suffered from comparisons with the much-beloved figure of Cushing, Cardinal Law benefited from comparisons with Medeiros. Medeiros, an immigrant from the Azores who grew up in Fall River, had never been fully accepted by his largely Irish flock. Cardinal Law did not face that problem. “I have a sense of being loved and accepted,” he said at the time of his elevation to cardinal. As the historian Thomas O’Connor put it in “Boston Catholics: A History of the Church and Its People,” “Law’s appointment was roundly greeted with enthusiasm by local residents as a welcome return to a more familiar Boston ecclesiastical tradition.” The clearest sign of that enthusiasm was financial. Donations to the archdiocese rose 50 percent after Cardinal Law’s arrival and within five years had doubled.

The archdiocese had accumulated an enormous debt load as a result of Cushing’s extensive building program. One reason for Medeiros’s relative lack of popularity was his having to make budget cuts and focus on administrative matters at the expense of pastoral duties he would have preferred to focus on. By the time of his death, Medeiros had largely retired the debt. So Cardinal Law could take over the archdiocese under relatively happy financial circumstances. One consequence was his being able to institute the archdiocese’s first capital fund drive.

Unlike Medeiros, Cardinal Law did not have to deal with the divisiveness of court-ordered school desegregation, which cast such a shadow over the city in the 1970s. Involvement in the controversy was thrust upon Medeiros. In contrast, Cardinal Law’s involvement in political issues could be of his own choosing.


That involvement was considerable. “Boston Catholics” relates the response of an anonymous diocesan priest to the news of Cardinal Law’s appointment: “Oh God, we’re getting a Midwestern liberal!” That characterization wasn’t entirely wrong. Cardinal Law supported lifting the embargo on Cuba and favored forgiving Third World debt obligations. He opposed the death penalty, advocated for public housing, and vigorously reached out to the growing Hispanic, Haitian, and Southeast Asian immigrant communities in the archdiocese. He urged defeat of a referendum to make English the official language of Lowell.

More often, Cardinal Law took conservative positions, both doctrinally and politically. In his first speech as archbishop, he called abortion a “national disgrace” and the “primordial evil of our time, the cloud that shrouds the conscience of our world.” A year later, he referred to abortion as “the critical issue of the moment” and criticized US Representative Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 1984, for her support of abortion rights. Ferraro was also criticized by Cardinal John J. O’Connor of New York. Cardinal Law and O’Connor had been named archbishops within two weeks of each other. Their conservative political views and consistent support of church orthodoxy inspired a joint nickname, “Law and Order.”

Speaking at the Boston College commencement in 1986, Cardinal Law warned the university against losing its Catholic identity: “My prayer is for a Boston College ever more clearly Catholic.”

During a 1998 visit to the United States, Irish President Mary McAleese met Cardinal Law. He criticized her for supporting the ordination of women as Catholic priests. McAleese replied that she was “the president of Ireland and not just of Catholic Ireland.” In 1990, he restored the Latin Mass, allowing it to be said at Holy Trinity Church in the South End.

As an undergraduate, Cardinal Law had campaigned for Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson. As cardinal, he was friendly with President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara. An occasional overnight guest at the summer White House at Kennebunkport, Maine, he spoke to the president monthly.

In 1999, Cardinal Law publicly, and unsuccessfully, opposed two nominations to the Supreme Judicial Court, of Margaret Marshall as chief justice and Judith Cowin as associate justice, saying their records left them “open to serious charges of anti-Catholicism.” He was more successful a year later, when he urged that the Interstate 93 crossing over the Charles River honor the late head of the Anti-Defamation League of New England, and it was subsequently named the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge.

Cardinal Law encouraged interfaith relations. “For Cardinal Law, in the Jewish community, there is a reverence,” Harold Schwartz, a former chairman of the Anti-Defamation League, said in 2002. Zakim once said that an extemporaneous talk about the significance of the Auschwitz death camp that the cardinal gave to a group of Catholics in 1986 “was the best presentation about the Holocaust that I’ve ever heard from a non-Jew.”

An example of Cardinal Law’s sensitivity to the Jewish community was his urging a group of Polish Carmelite nuns (an aunt of the cardinal’s had been a Carmelite) to move their convent from its location on the Auschwitz grounds.

Poland was one of several countries Cardinal Law visited during his tenure. Others included Mexico, Nicaragua, and Cuba. Cardinal Law, who spoke fluent Spanish, visited the island nation five times and met with Fidel Castro on several occasions, once for more than four hours. Cardinal Law, Boston College religious historian Thomas Wangler said in 1990, was “the first archbishop of Boston to have a foreign policy.”

Clergy sex abuse in the archdiocese preceded Cardinal Law’s arrival in Boston, in 1984, and its first significant US public disclosure was elsewhere (in Louisiana, in 1985).

But in Boston, revelations about the Rev. John J. Geoghan’s long history of sexual molestation of children triggered the scandal locally. His actions first came to the attention of archdiocesan officials during the tenure of Cushing (1944-1970), and Geoghan was ordered to receive counseling by Medeiros as early as 1980.

Less than a year after Cardinal Law assumed leadership of the archdiocese, he agreed to the removal of Geoghan from a Dorchester parish. Less than two months later, Cardinal Law assigned him to St. Julia Parish, in Weston. Auxiliary Bishop John M. D’Arcy objected, noting in a memo, “If something happens, the parishioners . . . will be convinced the Archdiocese has no concerns for their welfare and simply sends them priest with problems.” Geoghan stayed at St. Julia’s.

Clergy sex abuse became front-page news in Massachusetts in 1992, with accusations against James R. Porter, a former priest in the Fall River diocese. A year later, he would be sentenced to 18 to 20 years in prison. Cardinal Law, in his regular column for the archdiocesan newspaper, The Pilot, wrote: “From such evil acts, like a pebble dropped into a placid pool of water, there are ever-widening concentric circles of betrayal and anguish.”

Cardinal Law decried press attention to Porter. “The papers like to focus on the faults of a few,” he said. “We deplore that. . . . By all means, we call down God’s power on the media, particularly the Globe.”

In July 2001, Cardinal Law wrote in The Pilot that “Never was there an effort on my part to shift a problem from one place to the next.” The column was a response to press reports which had run in The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Herald, and the Globe about Geoghan and how the archdiocese had handled his case.

The Globe successfully sued to have court documents relating to Geoghan unsealed. With those documents and a database compiled from publicly available archdiocesan reports, the Globe Spotlight team began amassing information on clergy sex abuse in the archdiocese and the church hierarchy’s covering up the scandal and protecting priests even at the risk of possible future victims.

Those events form the basis of the feature film “Spotlight.” Len Cariou plays Cardinal Law.

The first Spotlight story, which ran on Jan. 6, 2002, focused on Geoghan. Intense public outcry ensued. Within days, a beleaguered Cardinal Law was offering apologies and attempting to justify his actions. Several hundred articles followed over the course of the year.

Signs began to appear, “Honk if you want the cardinal to resign.” On “The Tonight Show,” Jay Leno referred to “Cardinal Above the Law” and described an episode of the television series “E.R.” on which “doctors in Boston try desperately to remove Cardinal Law’s foot from his mouth.” A public opinion poll showed that 75 percent of US Catholics thought Cardinal Law was lying about his knowledge of the scandal and 64 percent felt he should resign. Only 18 percent of local Catholics professed to have a favorable opinion of the cardinal. Late in the year, 58 priests publicly called for his resignation.

On May 18, Cardinal Law released a letter, which was read to congregations throughout the archdiocese: “Bewilderment has given rise to anger and distrust. In the process, my credibility has been publicly questioned and I have become for some an object of contempt. I understand how this is so, and I am profoundly sorry that the inadequacy of past policies and flaws in past decisions have contributed to this situation.”

In June, Cardinal Law said in a Globe interview, “The primary focus has got to be on children, and if it is, then the way you handle these other problems is going to be different, and it’s that focus that has come to me with a new clarity.” In August, he became the first sitting prelate to be sworn in as a trial witness.

Some Catholics steadily supported Cardinal Law. In November, Harvard Law School professor and future US ambassador to the Vatican Mary Ann Glendon spoke at a conference in Rome. She concluded her remarks by saying, “I often hear it said that the Globe will receive a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting” on the scandal. “All I can say is that if fairness and accuracy have anything to do with it, awarding the Pulitzer Prize to The Boston Globe would be like giving the Nobel Peace Prize to Osama bin Laden.” Five months later, the Globe received the Pulitzer Prize for public service.

Cardinal Law resigned on Dec. 13. “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,” he said in a prepared statement. “To all those who have suffered from my shortcomings and mistakes, I both apologize to them and beg forgiveness.”

O’Malley, bishop of Palm Beach, Fla., was appointed to succeed Cardinal Law, in July 2003.

But the impact of the scandal continued for years.

The archdiocese agreed to pay $85 million to 552 victims of clergy sex abuse in 2003. It had already paid $10 million to settle 50 previous suits against Geoghan.

For a time, the archdiocese explored the possibility of bankruptcy. The grand quarters for the cardinal’s residence and archdiocesan chancery in Brighton, built by the archdiocese’s first cardinal, William H. O’Connell, would be sold to Boston College after Cardinal Law’s resignation to help pay settlements from the many suits arising from the sex-abuse scandal.

An only child, Bernard Francis Aloysius Law was born on Nov. 4, 1931, in the city of Torreón, in north-central Mexico. Cardinal Law’s father, Bernard A. Law, a former Army Air Force pilot, worked in commercial aviation. He was Catholic. Cardinal Law’s mother, Helen (Stubblefield) Law, a Presbyterian, later converted to Catholicism.

The family moved six times during his youth, and Cardinal Law attended schools in New York, Florida, Georgia, Colombia, and the Virgin Islands. At Charlotte Amalie High School, in St. Thomas, all but one of his teachers were black. Cardinal Law, one of only five white students in his graduating class, was both class president and valedictorian.

A history major at Harvard, Cardinal Law was vice president of the university’s Catholic Club. Among his roommates were a Southern Baptist and two Jewish students.

Cardinal Law entered St. Joseph Seminary College, in St. Benedict, La., in 1953. “The two years that I spent at St. Joseph’s were perhaps the two most significant years of my life thus far,” he wrote in his Harvard 25th reunion report. In 1955, he entered the Pontifical College Josephinum, in Worthington, Ohio.

Cardinal Law was ordained a priest in 1961 for the Diocese of Natchez-Jackson. His first appointment was as an assistant pastor in Vicksburg, Miss. He would never have his own parish. It would later be suggested that Cardinal Law’s limited pastoral experience contributed to his response to the sex-abuse scandal, leading him to see it from the viewpoint of priest and institution rather than victim and family.

He was soon made editor of The Mississippi Register, the diocese’s statewide weekly newspaper. Its strong support for the civil rights movement brought Cardinal Law death threats. “Mississippi in the ’60s was all that one might imagine and more,” Cardinal Law wrote in his 25th reunion report. “To have been a part of that significant moment of our history is in itself a grace, a gift.”

In 1965, Cardinal Law attended the last session of the Second Vatican Council. He moved to Washington, D.C., in 1968 to become executive director of the Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. His three years in the post introduced Cardinal Law to leading figures in the US church hierarchy. He became a protégé of William Baum, Cardinal Law’s predecessor as executive director, and later archbishop of Washington, D.C.

Baum also preceded Cardinal Law as bishop of Springfield-Cape Girardeau. Cardinal Law served in Missouri from 1973-1983, having returned to Mississippi to be vicar general of Natchez-Jackson from 1971-1973. “Delighted at being planted in the beautiful Ozarks,” he wrote in his 25th reunion report, he added that “The more active involvement in social concerns of the ’60s has now been placed in a broader context of pastoral ministry.”

Arriving at Logan Airport after being named archbishop, Cardinal Law drew laughter when he said that the Vatican’s apostolic delegate had told him that “after Boston, there is only heaven.”

Following his resignation, Cardinal Law lived at a convent in Clinton, Md., until his appointment as archpriest of St. Mary Major. The post, while largely ceremonial, is considered prestigious. The church, built in the fifth century and one of Rome’s most famous, is a popular destination for pilgrims and tourists. The pope visits it semiannually. Cardinal Law, who held the title of archbishop emeritus of Boston, stepped down as archpriest in 2011.

Cardinal Law voted in the 2005 conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI. Some victims-rights groups objected to his participation. The Rev. Keith Pecklers, a Jesuit and professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, said at the time in a Globe interview, “The 117 cardinals who are voting are all human beings and they have flaws as we all do. Holiness can come through suffering, from being broken or humbled. And that is Cardinal Law’s experience, I would say.”

Because cardinals over 80 do not vote for pope, Cardinal Law did not participate in the conclave eight years later that elected Pope Francis. The day after the new pope’s election, Francis went to pray at St. Mary Major Basilica, where he greeted Cardinal Law “discreetly,” as a Vatican spokesman put it.

Writing a month before his resignation, in his Harvard 50th reunion report, Cardinal Law gave this answer to the question of what he would have done differently in life: “Obviously, I wish I would have had the insight I have now about many problems, especially the terrible scourge of the sexual abuse of children. Hindsight would have avoided some horrible mistakes.”

Mark Feeney can be reached at