Cardinal Bernard Law, the former archbishop of Boston whose handling of child sex abuse by priests set off a global scandal and reckoning in the Catholic Church, died early Wednesday in Rome, according to several news reports. He was 86 and had reportedly been in poor health. When he resigned as Boston archbishop in December 2002, Law was the most senior Catholic prelate in the U.S., disgraced after The Boston Globe revealed that he and other archdiocesan officials had shuffled abuser priests among parishes, most infamously defrocked priest John Geoghan, without telling the new churches or law enforcement.
Upon Law's resignation, Pope John Paul II moved him to Rome and appointed him archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, a position he held until his 80th birthday in 2011. Law was named archbishop of Boston in 1984, and he became known as a vocal opponent of abortion and proponent of racial justice. As a priest in Mississippi from 1961 to 1973, Law had been a pivotal figure in the civil rights movement, USA Today notes, championing the Civil Rights Act and facing death threats for his advocacy.
But Law will be most remembered for protecting priests who sexually molested children, inadvertently or not. Geoghan, who was murdered in jail, raped or molested 130 children in Law's archdiocese. Among survivors, "I don't think there's going to be any great sadness" at Law's death, Barbara Dorris, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), told the Boston Herald. After the Boston scandal, the U.S. Catholic Church changed its policy and ordered an independent study of clerical sex abuse, finding that between 1950 and 2002, 10,667 individuals had reported child sex abuse and 4,392 clergy had been accused.