Cardinal Bernard F. Law, formerly of Boston, dies in Rome

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VATICAN CITY (CNA) — Cardinal Bernard F. Law has died after a brief hospitalization due to congenital heart failure, according to sources close to the cardinal and a report from the Boston Globe. He was 86 years old.

Law was appointed Archbishop of Boston in 1984, and resigned from the position on Dec. 13, 2002, after reports revealed that he did not disclose multiple allegations of clerical sexual abuse to the police or to the public, or intervene to remove priests accused of sexual abuse from priestly ministry.

“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," Law wrote at the time of his resignation.

After his resignation, Law moved to Rome.  He was assigned as the Archpriest of the Basilica of St. Mary Major in 2004 by Pope John Paul II, a largely ceremonial position from which he retired in 2011, at the age of 80. The appointment was controversial, especially as many in the U.S. continued to call for his criminal prosecution.  

Law was born on Nov. 4, 1931 in Torreon, Mexico, the son of a Catholic father, an Air Force colonel, and a Presbyterian mother.

Law attended high school in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and graduated from Harvard University in 1953. He was ordained a priest on May 21, 1961 for the Natchez-Jackson diocese in Mississippi, and was named vicar general of the diocese 10 years later. He also served as a writer and editor for the diocesan newspaper, The Mississippi Register.

In 1973, he was appointed Bishop of Springfield-Cape Girardeau in Missouri.

As a young priest and bishop, he was involved in ecumenism and the civil rights movement. In 1975, he organized the resettlement in his diocese of 166 Vietnamese priests and brothers who had fled Vietnam as refugees.

In the late 1970s, he served as chairman for the U.S. Bishop’s Committee on Ecumenical and Interracial Affairs, and, in the late 1990s, as chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities.  

In 1984, Law was appointed Archbishop of Boston, and in 1985 he was made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II.

In 1985, at an Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, Law was among the first to call for a universal catechism, which prompted the promulgation of the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” in 1992.

“I propose a commission of cardinals to prepare a draft of a conciliar catechism to be promulgated by the Holy Father after consulting the bishops of the world. In a shrinking world a global village-national catechisms will not fill the current need for clear articulation of the Church’s faith," Law said at the synod.

Beginning with visits to Cuba in 1985 and 1989, Law was instrumental in laying the diplomatic groundwork that made possible Pope John Paul II’s visit to the country in 1998. Law met with Fidel Castro on several occasions, and arranged aid from the Archdiocese of Boston to support Cuba’s Catholic Church.

In 2001, Cardinal Law became the subject of international criticism after he admitted that he knew of the accusations of serial abuse against retired priest John Geoghan, and responded by moving Geoghan to another parish rather than going to the authorities.

Law apologized to Geoghan’s victims in a press conference in early 2002.

The sexual abuse scandals in the Archdiocese of Boston led to nationwide outrage regarding practices which failed to protect children from abuse in the Catholic Church. In the spring of 2002, American cardinals met in Rome to discuss the matter, at which time Law offered his resignation, which was initially refused by the Vatican. Sexual abuse scandals broke in the media around the country, in a period which many now call the “Long Lent of 2002.”

In June 2002, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops passed The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, known as the “Dallas Charter,” which established procedures and policies for addressing allegations of sexual abuse in the Church, and for fostering “safe environments” for children and other vulnerable individuals.  

On Dec. 6, 2002, Law was subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury, which was investigating possible criminal violations on behalf of Law and other diocesan officials in the abuse scandal. One week later, his resignation as Archbishop of Boston was accepted by the Vatican.

In September 2002, the Archdiocese of Boston reached a $10M settlement with 86 victims of Geoghan. In 2003, the Archdiocese of Boston agreed to pay $85M to 552 people who claimed to have been abused by Catholic clergy, many of them during Law’s tenure. The archdiocese has continued to face litigation related to allegations of sexual abuse.

Law was not criminally charged for his involvement in the abuse scandal.

Two weeks ago, Law experienced a decline in health and was admitted to a clinic in Rome to monitor a congenital heart problem.

A few days ago, Law became unresponsive, and, according to reports, he passed away on Tuesday evening.

Funeral details will be made available later this week.

Law will be buried in a tomb at Rome's Basilica of St. Mary Major, which is customary for the priests who have served there.

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