Bernard Law, Former Archbishop Of Boston, Dies In Rome At 86 : The Two-Way : NPR

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Cardinal Bernard Law (right) speaks with unidentified prelates as he attends Pope Benedict XVI’s last general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican in 2013.

Gregorio Borgia/AP

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Cardinal Bernard Law (right) speaks with unidentified prelates as he attends Pope Benedict XVI’s last general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican in 2013.

Gregorio Borgia/AP

Updated at 8:30 a.m. ET

Cardinal Bernard Law, the former archbishop of Boston — once widely seen as America’s most influential prelate before resigning in disgrace amid the growing clergy sexual abuse scandal — has died in Rome.

The Holy See’s press office confirmed Law’s death “after a long illness.” He was 86.

In a carefully worded statement, reflecting the ongoing anger at the longtime prelate for his role helping to cover up the sins of pedophile priests, his successor, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley said, “I recognize that Cardinal Law’s passing brings forth a wide range of emotions …particularly … all who experienced the trauma of sexual abuse by clergy.” He offered “sincere apologies [and] continued prayers and … support.”

O’Malley went on to say, “It is a sad reality that for many, Cardinal Law’s life and ministry is identified with one overwhelming reality, the crisis of sexual abuse by priests … because his pastoral legacy has many other dimensions,” from civil rights and ecumenical work, to his care for the poor and immigrants.

The Vatican on Wednesday also released a statement expressing condolences, praying “for the repose of his soul,” but making no mention of the clergy’s sexual abuse scandal.

Law was at ground zero of the crisis when it exploded in Boston in 2002. He remained the face of the scandal, as it swelled to the tsunami that engulfed the Catholic Church worldwide.

Law’s response to the growing crisis only fueled the rage. For example, shortly after the scandal broke, he showed little compunction, issuing a carefully worded, Nixonian concession.

“Judgments were made … which in retrospect were tragically incorrect,” he said. Even as allegations and protests continued to mount, parishioners seethed that Law “still didn’t get it.”

“These are not easy days to serve in the pastoral role that is mine,” he allowed at a special Mass in Boston in April 2002.

It was only after almost a year, when even his own priests were publicly calling on him to quit, that Law did so after 19 years as head of the Boston Archdiocese. Pope John Paul II accepted his resignation.

“To all those who have suffered from my shortcomings and mistakes, I both apologize and from them beg forgiveness,” he said in a statement announcing his resignation. “The particular circumstances of this time suggest a quiet departure. Please keep me in your prayers.”

It was a shattering fall from grace.

“This was a man who came to Boston with great promise and hope, and people were talking about him being the first American pope,” recalled attorney Eric MacLeish, who represented hundreds of clergy abuse victims and made the once-venerated and powerful cardinal squirm through days of depositions.

“He ended up in disgrace,” MacLeish said.

Law also left behind parishioners in a crisis of faith, and a church in financial crisis. The archdiocese would ultimately sell some of its most valuable real estate, including the cardinal’s residence, to pay about $85 million in settlements to more than 500 victims.

In 2003, Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly issued a scathing report saying “the mistreatment of children was so massive and so prolonged that it borders on the unbelievable.” The report estimated that nearly 800 children had been abused by at least 237 priests over a period of six decades.

“Time after time … when [senior clergy] were tested … and faced with the choice between protecting children or protecting the reputation of the church and the priest abusers, they chose secrecy,” Reilly said. “In effect, they sacrificed children for many, many years.”

While Reilly said the archbishop could not be prosecuted under the weak laws in place at the time, the attorney general said Law “bears the ultimate responsibility” for what happened. Reilly added that Law did not “bear sole responsibility.”

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