ROME—Cardinal Bernard Law, the former archbishop of Boston who resigned in shame at the height of the American clerical sex-abuse scandal in 2002, who died early Wednesday morning in a Roman hospital, never rose above the disgrace that brought him down—at least not outside the Vatican’s protective walls.
He was sent to Rome in 2004 by Pope John Paul II, and, despite making a public apology for his failings and culpability in the cover up of rampant clerical sex abuse against children, he remained active in policy-making dicastery departments of the Holy See. He was allowed to resign honorably from those duties in 2011 when he turned 80, the official age all cardinals cease such roles.
He seemed to escape any scrutiny or punishment by the church for his well-known crimes, and instead remained part of the Vatican elite under John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, enjoying celebrity status that is akin to a clerical club membership bestowed on all top cardinals in Rome. He was often spotted dining with high-ranking cardinals at Rome’s better restaurants.
Law, whose sins were laid bare in the Oscar winning film Spotlight, was also the frequent object of protesters who picketed and left posters with the faces of the many victims of sex abuse by predatory priests in front of the majestic Saint Mary Major basilica in Rome, where he has served as the chief priest. Much as devout Catholics make a Vatican stop part of any trip to Rome, victims of clerical sex abuse paid similar homage to the basilica where Law preached.
His death comes at a particularly difficult moment in the battle of the Catholic Church to overcome its legacy of child abuse, which continues under Francis. Last week, the Royal Commission of Australia handed down a strict set of recommendations and not-so-veiled blame for the Holy See’s reluctance to punish predatory priests. The pope’s right-hand man Cardinal George Pell, head of the Secretariat for the Economy, left Rome in June to face charges that he molested children in his home country of Australia more than 30 years ago, when he first entered the priesthood.
And last week, Pope Francis failed to renew the mandate for his pontifical commission on child sex abuse, led by American Cardinal Sean O’Malley, letting it slip into an inactive state without comment. In Catholic circles, the death of the commission seemed to imply that Francis or the Catholic Church still doesn’t take the problem seriously.
“That Francis has allowed this lapse to occur is worrisome,” wrote the editorial board of National Catholic Reporter. “That the Vatican felt no need to offer an official explanation is just as worrisome, because it suggests that the protection of children is not as high a priority as statements from the Vatican say it is. That decision makers in the Vatican apparently didn't realize—or didn’t care—that this lapse would be perceived negatively is also troubling. A lack of an official response sends a tone-deaf and disappointing message to Catholics and the world.”
The coincidental timing of Law’s death and the lapse of this once-important commission is no doubt seen as symbolic. So will the Vatican’s response to Law’s passing. So far, it has issued a simple confirmation of his passing “after a long illness,” but Vatican watchers are anxious to find out how Law’s death is marked.
If Law gets the equivalent of a Vatican state funeral, it will only add salt to the wounds of those his blatant complicity hurt the most. The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP, has made its collective view known in a statement. “Our only hope is that the Vatican keeps these survivors in mind when it comes time for the cardinal’s funeral. We highly doubt there is a single victim of abuse who will ever receive the same attention, pomp and circumstance by Pope Francis. Every single Catholic should ask Pope Francis and the Vatican why. Why Law’s life was so celebrated when Boston's clergy sex-abuse survivors suffered so greatly? Why was Law promoted when Boston’s Catholic children were sexually abused, ignored, and pushed aside time and time again?”
Now it’s up to Francis to do the right thing by not shining a spotlight on one of the church’s most visible villains, who, even in death, remains one of the church’s most divisive figures.