He was friendly and approachable, looked like a Boston Irishman and had the local ties that come with a Harvard degree.
When Cardinal Bernard Law became archbishop of Boston in 1984, he was immediately a favorite of local Roman Catholics. For his part, Law proclaimed: “After Boston, there’s only heaven.”
Nearly 19 years later, Law has stepped down in disgrace, abandoned by priests under his charge and vilified by the public that once hailed him.
His resignation today completes the wrenching fall of a man who ascended from small-town parishes to one of the most influential posts in all of American Catholicism. Instead of being known for his extensive work with the poor or extensive influence with the church, Law may be saddled with a different legacy: his apparent failure to protect the archdiocese’s children from rogue priests.
“It’s very saddening, not only for what he did to himself, but what it did to the church in Boston,” said Philip Lawler, former editor of the Boston archdiocese’s official newspaper, The Pilot.
The descent started in January with revelations that Law approved the Rev. John Geoghan’s transfer to a new parish, even though he knew Geoghan had been removed from two parishes for molesting children.
Geoghan was later implicated in 130 cases of sex abuse. He was ousted from the priesthood in 1998 and convicted of child sex abuse in January.
The Geoghan case prompted a slew of allegations by victims involving numerous other priests, whose crimes were chronicled in voluminous secret files that a court ordered the archdiocese to release.
About 400 plaintiffs are now suing the archdiocese the fourth largest in the United States and the archdiocese is weighing bankruptcy.
The heat on Law was intense from the start, as church documents portrayed him as indifferent to the victims of heinous abuse and overprotective of the priests who committed it. He offered to resign during a meeting with Pope John Paul II in April, but the pope rejected the idea, and Law stayed on to handle an increasingly difficult situation.
As the scandal widened, Law took some steps to try to repair his image, but to little effect.
“I wish I could undo what I now see to have been mistakes,” he said earlier this year. “However, that is not a possibility.”
Law was born in Torreon, Mexico, the only child of a U.S. Air Force colonel. He was educated in North America, South America and the Virgin Islands before graduating from Harvard in 1953 with a degree in medieval history.
He was ordained a priest in 1961, and became so involved in civil rights work in Mississippi that his name appeared on a hit list put together by segregationists.
His rise to national prominence began in 1968, when he took a job at the ecumenical office of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The position allowed him to establish numerous influential contacts with bishops and diocesan leaders around the country.
He became bishop in the Springfield-Cape Girardeau diocese in Missouri in 1973, then landed the job in Boston in 1984 and was elevated to cardinal in 1985.
Law’s concern for immigrants and minorities made him enormously popular in those communities from the start, and he received support from them even in the scandal’s worst days.
But the Rev. Bernard McLaughlin, a frequent Law critic, said the cardinal never connected with common man. McLaughlin blamed Law’s ambition for blinding him to the devastating problems in his archdiocese.
“His gaze was on someplace else, the horizon,” McLaughlin said. “There was not that connection with the people, and in the end, that hurt him.”
Law has been active in the pope’s Congregation of Bishops, which chooses bishops. He was the foreign policy architect at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and made headlines with a 1998 trip to Cuba to prop up the Catholic Church.
The cardinal was also among a group of a religious leaders who met with President Bush after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, highlighting his close ties to the Bush family.
Early in the fall, the crisis seemed to be subsiding and Law began to step out in public, rallying with striking janitors and anti-abortion activists in much the same way he had before the scandal broke.
But the bottom fell out in late November after a court ordered the archdiocese to release a new batch of personnel files. The archdiocese’s own spokeswoman called the material “horrendous.”
Calls for Law’s resignation reached new heights.
“He has been a great diocesan leader with enormous skills,” the Rev. Robert Bullock said as it became clear Law might resign. “To have this happen is a tragedy.”