Disgraced Boston cardinal at the centre of clergy sex abuse scandal dies in Rome
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Disgraced Boston cardinal at the centre of clergy sex abuse scandal dies in Rome

ONE of the most controversial figures in the recent history of the Catholic church has died.

Cardinal Bernard Law, the disgraced former archbishop of Boston whose failures to stop a rampant and systematic ring of child molesters in the priesthood sparked what is considered the worst crisis in American Catholicism has died aged 86.

Law had been sick and was recently hospitalised in Rome.

Law was once one of the most important leaders in the US church, and had a direct influence on Vatican appointments to American dioceses, helping to set priorities for the nation’s bishops.

He was very much favored by Pope John Paul II during his tenure and had a close relationship with the former leader of the church.

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In January 2002, The Boston Globe began a series of reports that used church records to reveal that Law had transferred abusive clergy among parish assignments for years without alerting parents or police. Within months, Catholics around the country demanded to know whether their bishops had done the same.

In the notorious case that started the 2002 crisis, the Globe reported that Law and two of his predecessors as Boston archbishop had transferred former priest John Geoghan among parish assignments despite knowing he molested children. More than 130 people eventually came forward to say Geoghan abused them.

The scandal was depicted in the 2015 Oscar-winning film Spotlight.

Law tried to manage the mushrooming scandal in his own archdiocese by first refusing to comment, then apologiSing and promising reform. But thousands more church records were released describing new cases of how Law and others expressed more care for accused priests than for victims. Amid a groundswell against the cardinal, including rare public rebukes from some of his own priests, Law asked to resign and the pope said yes.

It was a dramatic fall from grace for Law and a rare step for the church, which deeply resists public pressure but could no longer do so given the scope of the crisis. Since 1950, more than 6,500, or about 6 percent of US priests, have been accused of molesting children, and the American church has paid more than $3 billion in settlements to victims, according to studies commissioned by the US bishops and media reports. As the leader of the archdiocese at the epicenter of the scandal, Law remained throughout his life a symbol of the church’s widespread failures to protect children.

Regardless, Law was protected and supported by the Vatican and in 2004, he was appointed archpriest of the Basilica of St Mary Major, one of four principal basilicas in Rome. When John Paul died the next year, Law was among bishops who presided at a memorial Mass for the pontiff in St Peter’s Basilica. Law also continued for several years to serve in Vatican dicasteries, or policy-making committees, including the Congregation for Bishops, which recommends appointments to the pope. Advocates for victims saw the posts as a sign of favour for Law by church officials unrepentant about abused children.

Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston attorney who has represented dozens of people who say they were sexually abused by priests, said Law’s death has reopened old wounds.

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“Many victims are reminded of the pain of being sexually abused upon hearing of Cardinal Law passing away,” Garabedian said. “Cardinal Law turned his back on innocent children and allowed them to be sexually abused and then received a promotion in Rome.”