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Cardinal Bernard Law, disgraced ex-archbishop of Boston, dead at 86

 Boston's Roman Catholic Cardinal Bernard Law leads a prayer service for Boston area Catholic youth in Newton, Massachusetts, before joining them on a nine-hour bus ride to Toronto to see Pope John Paul II and attend World Youth Day July 23, 2002.

Jim Bourg / REUTERS

Last Updated Dec 20, 2017 4:04 AM EST

BOSTON -- Cardinal Bernard Law, the disgraced former archbishop of Boston whose failures to stop child molesters in the priesthood sparked what would become the worst crisis in American Catholicism, has died, the Vatican confirmed on Tuesday. He was 86.

Law had been sick and was recently hospitalized in Rome. The Vatican Press Office confirmed his death in a brief email to CBS News.   

Law was once one of the most important leaders in the U.S. church. He broadly influenced Vatican appointments to American dioceses, helped set priorities for the nation's bishops and was favored by Pope John Paul II. 

But in January 2002, The Boston Globe began a series of reports that used church records to reveal that Law had transferred abusive clergy among parish assignments for years without alerting parents or police. Within months, Catholics around the country demanded to know whether their bishops had done the same. 

Law tried to manage the mushrooming scandal in his own archdiocese by first refusing to comment, then apologizing and promising reform. But thousands more church records were released describing new cases of how Law and others expressed more care for accused priests than for victims. Amid a groundswell against the cardinal, including rare public rebukes from some of his own priests, Law asked to resign and the pope said yes. 

"It is my fervent prayer that this action may help the archdiocese of Boston to experience the healing, reconciliation and unity which are so desperately needed," Law said when he stepped down as head of the Boston archdiocese in December of that year. "To all those who have suffered from my shortcomings and mistakes, I both apologize and from them beg forgiveness." 

According to CBS Boston, those remarks were at his last public event in the United States -- and he never returned. 

It had started 18 years earlier, in March 1984, when 52-year old Bernard Law arrived from Missouri and became the Archbishop of Boston, CBS Boston reports.

A little more a year later, he was elevated to Cardinal, one of the youngest Americans to become a prince of the Roman Catholic Church. His soft-spoken leadership style won over Boston Catholics, as he took a firm stance on church teachings, such as the fight against legalized abortion.

And he also became a voice against injustice.

Law was a Vatican favorite, traveling to Cuba several times on behalf of Pope John Paul II.  He brought pilgrims to the Auschwitz concentration camp and visited people devastated by the Mexico City earthquake in 1985.

But it was the horrific priest sexual abuse scandal here at home that destroyed him, creating a profound anger towards the cardinal and the church.Hundreds of people came forward saying they were abused by priests, priests that in some cases were moved from parish to parish, allowing them to repeat the violations that had come before.

"I did assign priests who had committed sexual abuse," Law said in a public apology in November 2002.

The church paid millions to settle abuse claims, but Law hung on, refusing to resign as Boston's archbishop. Fifty priests signed a letter asking Law to leave, demanding new leadership. He resigned on Dec. 16, 2002. 

It was a stunning fall from grace for Law and a rare step for the church, which deeply resists public pressure but could no longer do so given the scope of the crisis. Since 1950, more than 6,500, or about 6 percent of U.S. priests, have been accused of molesting children, and the American church has paid more than $3 billion in settlements to victims, according to studies commissioned by the U.S. bishops and media reports. As the leader of the archdiocese at the epicenter for the scandal, Law remained throughout his life a symbol of the church's widespread failures to protect children.

Still, Law retained some support in the Vatican. In 2004, he was appointed archpriest of the Basilica of St. Mary Major, one of four principal basilicas in Rome. When John Paul died the next year, Law was among bishops who presided at a memorial Mass for the pontiff in St. Peter's Basilica. Law also continued for several years to serve in Vatican dicasteries, or policy-making committees, including the Congregation for Bishops, which recommends appointments to the pope. Advocates for victims saw the posts as a sign of favor for Law by church officials unrepentant about abused children.

Law was expected to leave a far different mark on the church.

Born Nov. 4, 1931, in Torreon Mexico, Law was the only child of a U.S. Air Force colonel and a mother who was a Presbyterian convert to Catholicism. He was educated throughout North and South America and the Virgin Islands before graduating in 1953 from Harvard University. He was ordained in 1961 and campaigned for civil rights in Mississippi, sometimes traveling in the trunks of cars for safety. After a post with the national bishops' conference, he was named bishop of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau in Missouri, then archbishop of Boston in 1984, a prominent appointment to the country's fourth-largest diocese.

Law was a prominent voice in Massachusetts and beyond, especially as abortion. He publicly challenged public officials such as Gov. William Weld and Lt. Gov. Paul Cellucci over their support for abortion rights. The cardinal was among a chorus of bishops sharply critical of Geraldine Ferraro, the 1984 Democratic nominee for vice president and a Catholic over her support for abortion rights. Under President George W. Bush, Law was a regular visitor to the White House.

But Law's legacy has been overshadowed by the scandal. In the notorious case that started the 2002 crisis, as recounted in the move "Spotlight," the Globe reported that Law and two of his predecessors as Boston archbishop had transferred former priest John Geoghan among parish assignments despite knowing he molested children. More than 130 people eventually came forward to say Geoghan abused them. The archdiocese paid $10 million in settlements with 86 of his victims and their relatives as Law was clinging to his job. It was nowhere near enough to ease the growing anger.

As he announced he would leave, Law asked Boston Catholics, "Please keep me in your prayers."