BOSTON (CBS) – Cardinal Bernard Francis Law, the controversial former leader of the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston died Wednesday at a hospital in Rome after a long illness, the Vatican announced. He was 86 years old.
“To all those who have suffered from my shortcomings and from my mistakes I once again apologize,” Law said in his resignation news conference on December 16, 2002.
That’s how the Boston years of Cardinal Law ended – in disgrace.
“It is my hope and it is my prayer that my resignation as archbishop might help the Archdiocese of Boston to experience healing, to experience reconciliation and to experience unity,” he said in his last public event in Boston before leaving the United States, never to return.
It had started 18 years earlier, in March 1984, when 52-year old Bernard Law arrived from Missouri and became the Archbishop of Boston.
A little more a year later, he was elevated to Cardinal, one of the youngest Americans to become a prince of the Roman Catholic Church.
His soft spoken leadership style won over Boston Catholics, as he took a firm stance on church teachings, such as the fight against legalized abortion.
But he also became a voice against injustice.
WBZ-TV’s Louisa Moller reports
Law was a Vatican favorite, traveling to Cuba several times on behalf of Pope John Paul II. He brought pilgrims to the Auschwitz concentration camp and visited people devastated by the Mexico City earthquake in 1985.
But it was the horrific priest sexual abuse scandal here at home that destroyed him, creating a profound anger towards the cardinal and the church.
Hundreds of people came forward saying they were abused by priests, priests that in some cases were moved from parish to parish, allowing them to repeat the violations that had come before.
“I did assign priests who had committed sexual abuse,” Law said in a public apology in November 2002.
The church paid millions to settle abuse claims, but Law hung on, refusing to resign as Boston’s archbishop.
Still the pressure mounted, legally and from the parishes.
Fifty priests signed a letter asking Law to leave, demanding new leadership.
It ended on December 16, 2002.
“The most effective way that I might to serve the church at this moment is to resign,” he announced that day in a news conference broadcast on live television across the region.
Law spent the rest of his life primarily in Rome as head of the Basilica of St. Mary Major, until 2011 when, some say, he was forced to retire, forever the face of a scandal that damaged lives and the church, inflicting wounds that have still not healed.
“I acknowledge my own responsibility for decisions which led to intense suffering. I would also ask forgiveness,” he said in November 2002.
Funeral services for Law will be held in Rome, where he will also be buried.