Cardinal Law and the U.S.-Rome Sex Abuse Divide

Cardinal Bernard F. Law in Washington in 2002. The disgraced former archbishop of Boston died in Rome on Wednesday.

ROME — Early on Wednesday morning, hours after Cardinal Bernard F. Law died in a Rome hospital, a priest unlocked a small chapel at the Basilica of St. Mary Major and pointed to the spot under the marble altar and life-size crucifix where the once-mighty American prelate had arranged to be buried.

“It’s all ready,” Msgr. Gino Di Ciocco said solemnly. “It’s only for him.”

The church, one of Rome’s four great ancient basilicas, is where Cardinal Law had the honor of serving for more than a decade, first in 2004 as archpriest and, after his retirement in 2011, as archpriest emeritus. Those positions followed his resignation in disgrace as archbishop of Boston in 2002 amid revelations that he had systematically covered up the rampant sexual abuse of minors.

For many, Cardinal Law became the face of a complicit church hierarchy that hid and enabled sexual abuse, a scandal that has had a lasting impact on the credibility of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.

But beyond that, Cardinal Law, who died at 86, also symbolized the divergence between the United States and Rome on the problem. Reviled by many back home in Boston, he was embraced by those in the Vatican who took him in after he could no longer cling to power in his archdiocese.

Back then, powerful figures in the Vatican hierarchy denied the existence of sex abuse or explained it away as an Anglo-Saxon problem. They also suggested it was the product of a liberal culture, an overly aggressive press or even anti-Catholic bigotry.

A global outbreak of sex abuse cases in the church erased any such illusions and the church’s leading advocates for children’s safety now acknowledge the error of the Vatican’s ways. Rome has come a long way.

While the United States has enshrined a “zero tolerance” approach to sexual abuse, the Vatican remains divided among competing factions, including those who want the church to police itself more and those who feel that the church has done enough and that an era of ugly abuse scandals has passed on with Cardinal Law.

“Make no mistake: There is a political battle underway in Catholicism today over child sexual abuse,” a veteran Vatican watcher, John L. Allen Jr., recently wrote in Crux, a website that specializes in the Vatican and Catholic Church. “And its outcome is uncertain.”

It is sometimes not clear which camp Pope Francis is in.

For many critics, Pope Francis has not made good on his early promise to remove the deep stain of child sex abuse from the church. A proposed tribunal to try bishops was scrapped. In June, Francis granted a leave of absence to Cardinal George Pell, the highest-ranking Roman Catholic prelate to be formally charged with sexual offenses, so that he could defend himself in Australia.

In September, the Vatican recalled Msgr. Carlo Alberto Capella, a high-ranking priest working as a diplomat in the Holy See’s embassy in Washington, after American authorities sought to strip his immunity and potentially charge him with possession of child pornography. The Vatican drew criticism for protecting its own by whisking the priest away, but said he would face investigation and perhaps trial in Vatican City. So far, no charges have been filed.

And this month, the three-year terms of members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors expired without any news of renewed terms or appointments, prompting The National Catholic Reporter to declare in an editorial: “That Francis has allowed this lapse to occur is worrisome.” The commission’s only abuse survivors had already left in frustration. Greg Burke, the Vatican spokesman, said, “The pope is working on it and will name members as soon as he can.”

In Rome, many are unhappy with the lack of progress in efforts to hold bishops accountable for hiding abuse. But there are also many who have a perspective more sympathetic to Cardinal Law.

Monsignor Di Ciocco, who described him as a humble, generous and pastoral man of the people, said any initial reservations about Cardinal Law bringing baggage with him from Boston to St. Mary Major were overcome by the cardinal’s deep spirituality. “He suffered a lot for the situation created in his church in Boston,” said Monsignor Di Ciocco, recalling how the prelate spoke about how the scandal “weighed on him.”

There was the time a parishioner accused him of supporting pedophiles during a church service outside Rome, or when the 2015 movie “Spotlight” about the Boston Globe investigation that revealed the abuse scandal, portrayed him unflatteringly.

Even as the scandal engulfed the United States and built pressure on Cardinal Law to resign, he seemed to expect a reprieve in Rome. On April 22, 2002, when he landed here for an emergency summit about new procedures to investigate, and dismiss, priests accused of sexual misconduct against minors, he was stunned by the aggressive media scrum.

“My God!” he said with horror as a swarm of Italian reporters blocked his exit from the airport.

Days later, as the Vatican’s Congregation of Bishops began examining whether Cardinal Law had lost his ability to govern the archdiocese of Boston, I waited back at the airport’s departure lounge to ask him if he intended to resign. I was the Rome stringer for The Boston Globe during the “Spotlight” series, and he did not take kindly to the question.

You mentioned my resignation, but that never came up,” he said, deflecting questions about his future and why he skipped out on a news conference the previous evening. “I think that is a very personal question, and I am not telling The Globe and I am not telling anyone else. I have nothing to say.”

Soon after, he resigned. And Rome beckoned. In May 2004, John Paul II called him from a convent in Maryland to the St. Mary Major Basilica. The ceremonial assignment itself gave the former powerhouse no institutional power, but he did continue to serve on the influential Congregation for Bishops, which allowed him to shape the clergy in America.

If Cardinal Law was ashamed to show his face, he didn’t show it, often attending Rome’s embassy events and church receptions.

“Anyone of you know how to take a picture?” he said jokingly, as he posed with some admiring seminarians inside the Apostolic Palace in November 2012. But when I approached him for an interview, he coolly responded: “I don’t give interviews. O.K.? Don’t even answer a question. It’s very important.”

By then, he had reached the mandatory retirement age of 80 and, as a result, had lost his voting rights in the conclave. The next year brought even more changes. On the day after the election of Pope Francis in March 2013, the pontiff visited St. Mary Major Basilica at 8 a.m. to pray silently at its altar. The Rev. Federico Lombardi, then the Vatican spokesman, made a point of saying that, yes, he was greeted by Cardinal Law there — but only “discreetly.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Pope Francis sent a customary letter to the dean of the College of Cardinals expressing condolences for the loss of one of their members and praying that “God who is rich in mercy, may welcome him in His eternal peace.”

At the conclusion of a funeral Mass for Cardinal Law on Thursday afternoon in St. Peter’s Basilica, Francis will preside over the Final Commendation and Farewell of the Funeral Liturgy.

Ultimately, he will be buried in the small chapel between the wooden confessionals, adorned with the relics of saints and a centuries-old crucifix. Cardinal Law renovated the place himself several years ago, and supporters like Monsignor Di Ciocco believe he deserves such a place of honor.

“It wasn’t that he was a pedophile,” said Monsignor Di Ciocco. “He found himself having to manage a difficult situation. It’s not that he himself behaved badly.

“In my times, there was a different instruction. If something happened in a family, it was the role of the father of a family to hide it. Now it is all about the media and saying sorry. It was natural that he defended his children, the priests. We can’t criticize what happened then with the mentality of today. It’s not fair.”

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