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Obituary | Cardinal Bernard F. Law

VATICAN CITY — Cardinal Bernard F. Law, who had been one of the United States' most powerful and respected bishops until his legacy was blemished by the devastating sexual abuse of minors by priests in his Archdiocese of Boston, died early Dec. 20 in Rome at the age of 86.

Before the abuse scandal forced his resignation in 2002, Cardinal Law had been a leading Church spokesman on issues such as civil rights, international justice, abortion poverty, ecumenism and war and peace.

Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley of Boston wrote in a statement Dec. 20, "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." Cardinal O'Malley also recognized that his predecessor's death "brings forth a wide range of emotions on the part of many people."

Cardinal Law will be buried in Rome, where he had his last assignment. According to the Vatican, his funeral Mass was to be celebrated the afternoon of Dec. 21 in St. Peter's Basilica with Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, presiding. Pope Francis, as is customary for cardinals' funerals, was to preside over the final rites at the end of Mass.

Bernard Francis Law was born on Nov. 4, 1931, in Torreon, Mexico, where his father, a career Air Force officer, was then stationed.

He graduated from Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., before entering St. Joseph Seminary in St. Benedict, La., in 1953. He later studied at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Worthington, Ohio.

He was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Natchez-Jackson (now Jackson), Mississippi, in 1961. After serving two years as an assistant pastor, he was made editor of the Mississippi Register, the diocesan newspaper.

A civil rights activist, he joined the Mississippi Leadership Conference and Mississippi Human Relations Council. He received death threats for his strong editorial positions on civil rights in the Mississippi Register.

His work for ecumenism in the Deep South in the 1960s received national attention, and in 1968 he was tapped for his first national post, as executive director of the U.S. bishops' Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

In 1973 Blessed Paul VI named him bishop of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Mo. Continuing his ecumenical work, he formed the Missouri Christian Leadership Conference. He was made a member of the Vatican's Secretariat (now Pontifical Council) for Promoting Christian Unity.

In 1981, when the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith approved a special program for welcoming into the Catholic priesthood former U.S. Episcopalian priests who became Catholics, he was named the Vatican delegate to develop the program and oversee it.

St. John Paul II made him archbishop of Boston in January 1984 and the following year made him a cardinal.

It was his proposal for a worldwide catechism, in a speech at the 1985 extraordinary Synod of Bishops, that led to development of the "Catechism of the Catholic Church." Cardinal Law also oversaw the first drafting of an English translation of the catechism.

The collapse of Cardinal Law's authority and status began in January 2002 with the criminal trial of serial child molester John Geoghan and the court-ordered release of archdiocesan files on Geoghan to the media. Geoghan had been allowed to stay in active ministry for three decades before he was finally removed and subsequently laicized.

The released files showed that when complaints against Geoghan were made in one parish he would be removed, but soon assigned to another parish. The files gave firsthand proof of how such complaints were handled and demonstrated a pattern of protecting and transferring abusive priests by the cardinal and his aides.

In the first weeks following the revelations, Cardinal Law publicly apologized on several occasions and announced a series of major policy changes — most importantly, removing permanently from ministry any priest ever credibly accused of sexual abuse of a minor and turning over to district attorneys the names of all priests against whom any abuse allegation had been made.

At the time of his resignation from the Boston Archdiocese, Cardinal Law was 71 years old and, as a cardinal since 1985. His resignation did not affect his standing as an active cardinal.

St. John Paul appointed Cardinal Law in 2004 to be the new archpriest of the Basilica of St. Mary Major, one of the four major basilicas of Rome.

His death leaves the College of Cardinals with 216 members, including 120 cardinals who are under the age of 80 and eligible to vote in a conclave to elect a new pope. 

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