clock menu more-arrow no yes

Cardinal Bernard Law, at the center of Boston church sex abuse scandals, dies

Law’s fall from grace was chronicled in the Academy Award-winning film Spotlight.

Ceremony Marking Pope John Paul IIs Beatification
Cardinal Law finished his days in Rome after resigning as Boston’s archbishop.
Franco Origlia/Getty Images

A high-ranking Vatican official disgraced by the Catholic Church's child sex abuse scandals has died, the Vatican has confirmed. Cardinal Bernard Law, former archbishop of Boston, died in Rome on Wednesday morning at the age of 86.

The Vatican said only that Law had died after a long illness.

While thousands of priests within the Catholic Church have been accused of participating in, or turning a blind eye to, child sex abuse by the clergy, Law was among the highest-profile figures to have been implicated in the scandal for covering up junior priests’ abuses. His fall from grace was, to many, symbolic of the wider corruption within the Catholic Church.

The Catholic child abuse scandal reached the public eye in the 1990s after a series of television documentaries, including 1994’s Suffer the Children, first brought the issue to light in Ireland. Since then, revelations have spread worldwide, with reports of widespread clerical abuse affecting thousands of children in dozens of countries.

Law’s story received even broader attention as a result of the Oscar Best Picture-winning 2015 film Spotlight, which chronicled the efforts of the Boston Globe’s investigative reporters in uncovering the extent of the Vatican’s cover-up of child sex abuse in Boston.

In the early 2000s Law, then an archbishop, was a prominent — if at times controversial — figure on the Boston sociopolitical scene. Even with relatively hardline views on women's ordination, birth control, and other hot-button issues within the church, Law was a popular and well-liked figure in Boston, ranking highly on, for example, Boston magazine’s 2001 “power list.”

But in 2002, the case of Rev. John J. Geoghan put Law into the limelight. Geoghan, a then-defrocked priest, was accused of abusing 130 boys in his care over 30 years. No less troubling was the discovery that Geoghan had been transferred at least half a dozen times from parish to parish after rumors of abuse began to circulate. This proved to be a common trope in stories of clerical sex abuse — several reports on the abuse have found that senior church officials rarely took action after allegations of abuse, systematically transferring accused offenders into different parishes, where they would continue to come into contact with children, rather than seeking legal recourse or punishment.

Law was, however, the first high-ranking official to be formally accused of participating in a cover-up. Investigators found that he was responsible for some of Geoghan’s transfers, which allowed him to continue abusing children with immunity. Law apologized for his role in the Geoghan affair. But in subsequent months and years, criminal investigations over the actions of several dozen priests continued to cast Law’s name into the spotlight.

Critics such as the lay Catholic group Voices of the Faithful alleged that Law had consistently participated in the relocation of priests he knew to have molested children, and that as a result, he was directly responsible for their continued contact with — and abuse of — additional children. In one instance, Law signed documents authorizing the transfer of one priest who had been accused of molesting children, which stated “nothing in his background ... made him unsuitable to work with children.”

The Boston Globe exposed the extent of Law’s involvement in the cover-up, and afterward, 58 priests — many of whom reported to Law as a direct superior — signed a letter urging him to resign. Law left his post as archbishop of Boston in December 2002. He kept the titles of bishop and cardinal of the Catholic Church until his death, and remained influential in shaping Vatican hierarchy through his role in helping to assign bishops.

Because Massachusetts did not have a mandatory reporting law at the time, Law was never charged with a crime.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.