VATICAN CITY—Cardinal Bernard Law was laid to rest on Thursday far from Boston, the city of his highest ascent and most devastating failure. The American priest resigned his leadership of the archdiocese in 2002 when The Boston Globe revealed that he had covered up rampant clergy sex abuse of children. Just two years later, he was whisked to Rome, where Pope John Paul II made him the ceremonial head of one of the city’s four major basilicas: Santa Maria Maggiore, or St. Mary Major in English.
It was a prestigious landing for the prelate who had come to symbolize the Catholic Church’s worst scandal in at least a generation. After an illness, he died this week at 86. Even in death, he was given a ceremonious exit: a funeral mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, attended by a coterie of cardinals and complete with a blessing from Pope Francis. The Church has taken steps to move past its legacy of clergy sex abuse over the last decade, but it still betrays moments of ambivalence like this, caught between the moral imperative to eliminate abuse and its reticence about sacrificing decorum or showing disloyalty to powerful clerics.
The crowd at St. Peter’s was small. Ushers rolled away stacks of empty chairs just minutes before mass began, and even the rows up front weren’t fully filled. Some people were there as Law’s supporters: Callista Gingrich, the American ambassador-designate to the Holy See, told me that she and her husband, Newt, “are blessed to be here today. [Law] was a dear friend.” Others were priests or nuns who were loosely acquainted with Law from his time in Rome: One told me he was there because he wanted to pray for the cardinal, carefully adding that Law “can be held up as a wonderful model of trust in divine love and divine mercy.” An attendee told me he was afraid there might be protests, similar to ones held outside of Boston churches as the scandal broke 15 year ago.