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Cardinal Bernard Law, figure of church sex abuse scandal, dead at 86

VATICAN CITY — Cardinal Bernard Law, the former Boston archbishop who resigned in disgrace during the church sex abuse scandal, has died, the Vatican has confirmed.

Law died in Rome, where he served as archpriest of the Papal Liberian Basilica of St. Mary Major after he was forced to resign as archbishop of Boston in 2002.

The scandal broke when it was revealed by the Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigative reporting team that Law and other bishops before him had covered for pedophile priests in the Boston Archdiocese.

In a news conference, Law apologized to victims of abuse by a priest, John Geoghan, who had been moved from parish to parish, despite Law’s knowledge of his abuse of young boys. Law insisted Geoghan’s abuse was in the past.

Geoghan was eventually convicted of indecent assault and battery on a 10-year-old boy.

The Spotlight team’s uncovering of widespread child abuse by the Catholic clergy in the Boston Archdiocese won a Pulitzer prize. The dramatization of the team’s investigation, a 2015 movie also called “Spotlight,” won the 2016 Best Picture Academy Award, bringing the story to a much wider audience.

The Vatican issued a press release early Wednesday confirming the death of Cardinal Bernard Law, with one line reading “Cardinal Bernard Law died early this morning after a long illness.”

Law never faced criminal sanctions for his role in allowing abusive priests to remain in church parishes. The scandal reverberated through the church, exposing similar allegations worldwide that compromised its moral authority and led to years of multimillion-dollar settlements. To his detractors, his second career at the Vatican was a slap in the face to victims of church sex abuse, one that further undermined the church’s legitimacy.

“Survivors of child sexual assault in Boston, who were first betrayed by Law’s cover-up of sex crimes and then doubly betrayed by his subsequent promotion to Rome, were those most hurt,” according to a statement from Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests after his death. “No words can convey the pain these survivors and their loved ones suffered.”

The group advised the Vatican to keep the abuse survivors in mind when it comes to his funeral. It asked: “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?”

Timeline: A look at the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandals

Rise of Boston’s spiritual leader

Law was born in Torreon, Mexico, on November 4, 1931, to Helen and Bernard Law, an Air Force colonel. He did his postgraduate studies at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Louisiana and at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio. He was ordained as a priest in the Natchez-Jackson, Mississippi, diocese on May 21, 1961 and became vicar general of the Natchez-Jackson diocese in 1971.

In 1973, he was made bishop of the Springfield-Cape Girardeau diocese in southern Missouri. He served as chair of the Bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interracial Affairs and in 1976 he was named to the Vatican Commission on Religious Relations with Jews.

The posts were stepping stones to his becoming the spiritual leader of Boston’s large and influential Catholic community. In 1984, Pope John Paul II appointed Law to be the archbishop of the Boston Archdiocese, consisting of 362 parishes serving 2.1 million members. That same year, Law received a letter from a bishop expressing concerns about Rev. John Geoghan. Law assigned Geoghan to another parish despite the allegations.

In 1985, Pope John Paul II elevated Law to cardinal, one of just 13 Americans holding that office at the time.

Calls for resignation

Law attempted to resign as Archbishop of Boston in April 2002, but Pope John Paul II rejected the resignation. In 2002, a judge presiding over the child rape case of Rev. Paul Shanley ordered Cardinal Law to be deposed by lawyers of one of Shanley’s victims.

Law testified about his supervision of Geoghan in 2002, saying he relied on his assistants to investigate charges of abuse. In May 2002, he apologized for his role in the clergy abuse scandal in a letter distributed throughout the archdiocese. But he denied knowledge of sexual abuse allegations against Shanley until 1993.

In August 2002, Law appeared in court to testify about a settlement reached between the archdiocese of Boston and victims of clergy abuse. The archdiocese rescinded the monetary offer shortly afterward.

In December, as calls grew for him to resign, Law was subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury investigating “possible criminal violations by church officials who supervised priests accused of sexually abusing children.” Days later, he resigned as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Catholic University of America, followed by his resignation as archbishop of Boston.

Catholic Church abuses under scrutiny

The breakdown of trust in the Catholic Church continues to have reverberations around the world.

Earlier this month the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which concluded after five years of work, delivered a total of 189 new recommendations to address what it described as a “serious failure” by Australia’s institutions to protect its most vulnerable citizens.

Senior leaders in the country’s church, however, rejected recommendations by the wide-reaching investigation, declining to end mandatory celibacy for priests and break the secrecy of confession.

Of the survivors who reported being abused in a religious institution, over 60% said it occurred in a Catholic organization, the report found.