Bernard Law, Former Archbishop Of Boston, Dies In Rome At 86 : The Two-Way Once considered among the most influential prelates in America, the archbishop was forced to resign amid the church's growing sex abuse scandal, which indelibly stained his reputation.
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Bernard Law, Former Archbishop Of Boston, Dies In Rome At 86

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Bernard Law, Former Archbishop Of Boston, Dies In Rome At 86

Bernard Law, Former Archbishop Of Boston, Dies In Rome At 86

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Cardinal Bernard Law, the former archbishop of Boston, has died at the age of 86. Law resigned amid the clergy sexual abuse crisis in 2002. He was blamed for covering up for priests who were sexually abusing children. And NPR's Tovia Smith reports that those decisions will end up as a central part of Law's legacy.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: When the stories of clergy sexual abuse exploded in 2002 from a trickle in Boston to the tsunami that would eventually rock the Catholic Church around the globe, Cardinal Law was at ground zero.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Tonight's top headline, of course, Cardinal Bernard Law. Now, he's...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Protected the priest accused of molesting more than 130 children.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Dealing now with an ugly secret that's been hidden for far too long.

SMITH: For months, Law seemed to show more sympathy for himself than the victims.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERNARD LAW: These are not easy days to serve in the pastoral role that is mine.

SMITH: And he showed little compunction, offering only a carefully worded, almost Nixonian concession.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAW: Judgments were made, which in retrospect, were tragically incorrect.

SMITH: It left many even more enraged that the cardinal still didn't get it. Only after almost a year, when even his own priests were publicly calling on him to quit, did he finally resign.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAW: I ask forgiveness of those who had been abused and of their parents.

ERIC MACLEISH: This was a man who came to Boston with great promise and hope and, you know, people talking about him being the first American pope, and he ended up in disgrace.

SMITH: Attorney Eric MacLeish, who represented hundreds of victims, was one of several lawyers who made the once-venerated Cardinal squirm through days of depositions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MACLEISH: You promoted an admitted child molester. Is that not accurate?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Objection.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You can answer.

LAW: I appointed Father Graham after...

SMITH: It would come out only later that countless others in the church transgressed as much or more than Cardinal Law. But Catholic lay activist Jim Post says Law will be remembered for the sins of them all.

JAMES POST: He was the poster child for a church that was in denial and a hierarchy that refused to acknowledge the facts of this terrible abuse.

SMITH: The scandal eclipses Law's long career as minister and self-described meddler in politics. He was as well-connected in Washington, D.C., as he was in Rome. Outspoken on everything from abortion and affordable housing to foreign policy - he was a staunch advocate for immigrants and the poor and, having started his career in Mississippi in the '60s, a champion for better race relations. But survivor advocate David Clossey says Law's legacy will forever be stained by his failure to protect his flock.

DAVID CLOSSEY: Bishop's No. 1 goal is to follow the example of Jesus Christ, safeguarding the most vulnerable. Going out into the cold and the dark and the rain, right? I get choked up about this because imagine how all this would be different had Cardinal Law said you've got to report anything you know or suspect.

SMITH: Born in Mexico to an Air Force pilot and a mom who converted to Catholicism, Law was known as a stalwart of Catholic orthodoxy. And while he struck many as autocratic and arrogant, Boston College professor James Bretzke says Law saw himself as a loyal soldier dutifully defending against any damage to the Roman Catholic Church.

JAMES BRETZKE: He considered himself to be a prince of the church and responsible for upholding the dignity of the church and protecting it as an institution.

SMITH: With time, says Father Joseph Hennessey, who's known Law since the early '80s, people may come to see the cardinal in a more sympathetic light as a product of a different era.

JOSEPH HENNESSEY: I personally don't believe that he could possibly have been indifferent to the children. I think it was not so much of a conspiracy as something that was done in other walks of life, you know, where policemen and teachers also would be, you know, kind of slapped on the wrist, so to speak, for these kind of crimes.

SMITH: Law has barely been seen or heard from since he left Boston for the Vatican, where he served as archpriest of a basilica until 2011. His last years were likely filled with both pain and penance. As Boston businessman, philanthropist and former Law confidant Jack Connors notes, Catholicism teaches all sins can be forgiven.

JACK CONNORS: I think a lot of us have crossed the bridge here and forgiven Cardinal Law's decisions that put children in harm's way. But I don't think many of us are going to forget it.

SMITH: The ultimate judgment, he says, will come from a higher authority. Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON HOPKINS' "SMALL MEMORY")

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