Cardinal who resigned over sex abuse scandal dies

Cardinal Bernard Law has died age 86. Photo: Reuters
Cardinal Bernard Law has died age 86. Photo: Reuters

Cardinal Bernard Law, who was forced to resign in 2002 as archbishop of Boston over a sex abuse scandal after a two-decade reign as one of the highest-ranking Catholic officials in the United States, has died, news media said.

He was 86. Details of his death were unclear late on Monday. He lived in Rome, the New York Times said.

Law's resignation in December 2002 amid a scandal over pedophile priests was a dismal end to an extraordinary career that started in the heat and protest of civil rights advocacy in the US deep south and eventually touched the highest rungs of church power in Rome.

The events of the sex abuse scandal and its cover-up were the inspiration for the 2015 Oscar award winning film hollywood Spotlght.

It was a deep fall for Law, who had been warmly welcomed as a bishop of great promise when he arrived to take over the Boston archdiocese in 1984. The Harvard-educated orthodox theologian was tailor-made to lead the Catholic stronghold.

He was loyal to the Pope, he had administrative experience, he was familiar with Boston from his days at Harvard and as an outsider he would be able to bring objectivity and financial order to a diocese that had suffered during the school desegregation riots of the 1970s, Boston College professor and church historian Thomas O'Connor wrote in his 1998 book, Boston Catholics.

Law's fluency in Spanish and wide travels in Latin America made him an ideal candidate as the diocese welcomed new immigrants who were starting to rival the established Irish-Italian population as the dominant force in the church.

"Bright, affable and compassionate, the new prelate made friends easily, moved about the archdiocese actively, displayed an early and serious concern for poor and homeless persons and almost immediately set out to establish relations with the increasing number of "new" immigrants," O'Connor wrote.

Law sealed his place in the hearts of Boston's rabid sports fans when he high-fived Boston Celtics' basketball player Quinn Buckner after the team won the NBA championship in 1984.

CENTRAL FIGURE IN CRISIS

But it all ended badly in December 2002. Law stepped down, having become a central figure in the worst crisis to hit the Roman Catholic Church in America -- the alleged cover-up by church officials of sexual abuse of children by priests.

Many Catholics in the Boston area, as well as throughout the United States, where similar scandals played out, seethed at reports and internal church files that showed leaders such as Law knew about the abuse and kept it secret.

Law's departure followed revelations that he knew of the sexual abuse tendencies of a priest, Father Paul Shanley, for years, but did nothing to stop him from interacting with children.

Instead, Law promoted Shanley, who had admitted to sodomising boys and vocally advocated sex between adults and children, and even recommended him in his transfer to a California parish.

But while the Shanley case was the last straw, it appeared to be just one of several instances in which Law and others in the archdiocesan hierarchy hid abuse of children by priests.

The scandal started with the case of John Geoghan, a defrocked priest accused by more than 130 people of molesting them during his 30 years as a Boston area priest. He is now serving a prison sentence for molesting a 10-year-old boy.

The Boston archdiocese has settled dozens of cases against Geoghan for at least $45 million. After documents revealed the extent of the cover-up of Geoghan's sexual problems, Law caved in to public pressure and handed over to police the names of nearly 100 priests who had been accused.

Law, a conservative theologian known for a disdain of the media and his closeness to the pope, repeatedly apologised to Geoghan's victims, but in the aftermath of the Shanley revelations, went into seclusion and refused interview requests.

"In my most horrible nightmares, I would never have imagined we would have come to the situation we are in today," Law told a meeting of about 3,000 Catholics.

"I stand before you recognising the trust many of you had in me has been broken, and it has been broken because of decisions for which I was responsible.

"With all my heart, I am sorry for that," he said.

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