Vatican City • Pope Francis prayed Thursday for a merciful final judgment for Cardinal Bernard Law, presiding over the funeral rites for a man who epitomized the Catholic Church’s failure to protect children from pedophile priests and its arrogance in safeguarding its own reputation at all costs.
In a final blessing at Law’s funeral Mass at the back altar of St. Peter’s Basilica, Francis blessed Law’s coffin with incense and holy water and recited the ritual prayer commending his soul to God.
“May he be given a merciful judgment so that redeemed from death, freed from punishment, reconciled to the Father, carried in the arms of the Good Shepherd, he may deserve to enter fully into everlasting happiness in the company of the eternal King together with all the saints,” Francis said in Latin.
The dean of the college of cardinals, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, celebrated the funeral Mass, along with some 30 other cardinals, and eulogized Law without making any mention of the scandal. Following the typical protocol, Francis arrived at the end of the service to deliver the final prayer.
In the pews were U.S. Ambassador-designate Callista Gingrich and her husband, Newt, some other members of the diplomatic corps and the Vatican foreign minister, Archbishop Paul Gallagher.
Turnout was otherwise limited, with basilica ushers stacking extra rows of empty seats before the Mass began.
Law, who died Wednesday at age 86, resigned in disgrace as archbishop of Boston in 2002 after revelations that he covered up for dozens of priests who raped and sexually molested children, moving them to different parishes without telling parents or police.
The scandal, exposed by The Boston Globe and memorialized in the Oscar-winning film “Spotlight,” then spread throughout the U.S. and world, with thousands of people from all continents coming forward in ensuing years with claims their priests sexually abused them when they were children.
St. John Paul II’s decision to promote Law to head a major Rome basilica in 2004 reinforced the impression that the Vatican — which had turned a blind eye to abuse for decades — still hadn’t grasped the scale of the problem, the trauma it caused its victims, and the moral credibility the church had lost as a result.
In his homily, Sodano omitted any reference to Law’s role in the scandal or the fact that he resigned under unrelenting public pressure. Sodano, who was Vatican secretary of state at the time and would have been intimately involved in determining Law’s fate, insisted that John Paul had “called him to Rome” to serve as archpriest of the Vatican’s St. Mary Major basilica, a position he took up two years later.
“Today, we want to give a final salute and thank God for giving us a good pastor,” Sodano said. Priests, he said, had a lofty responsibility and sometimes “we can be lacking,” but he prayed that God will “welcome him to eternal paradise.”
Sodano himself has a tainted legacy on the sex abuse front, having been a key supporter of the Rev. Marcial Maciel, the drug-addicted founder of the Legion of Christ religious order who sexually abused his seminarians and fathered three children. It was only after John Paul died and Sodano was sidelined that Pope Benedict XVI ordered Maciel to live a lifetime of “penance and prayer” for his crimes.
Francis has inherited John Paul’s checkered legacy on sex abuse, and has promised “zero tolerance” for priests who rape or molest children. But his own record has been marked by questionable appointments, a reneged proposal to create a Vatican tribunal to prosecute negligent bishops like Law, and giving the issue less urgency than his predecessor, Benedict.
Just this week, Francis’ much-hyped commission of experts to advise the church on keeping children safe was allowed to lapse after its initial three-year mandate. Vatican officials have said new members would be named soon.
And even after Law’s cover-up led American bishops in 2002 to draft tough regulations to protect children and keep pedophiles out of the priesthood, some of his fellow bishops have continued to harbor accused abusers.
The Rev. Thomas Doyle, a key whistleblower in the decades-old clerical sex abuse saga, said those bishops are the real scandal today since a new policy has been in place for 15 years, and yet there are still bishops who have chosen to protect the church and their priests more than children.
“One thing is certain: Bernard Law may be the remembered face of hierarchical cover-up and mendacity, but there are others who were far, far worse and carry a greater burden of guilt because they knew by then what the score was,” Doyle said in an email, ticking off a list of well-known bishops who have been publicly shamed — and in some cases prosecuted — for covering up for their priests.
“They make Law look like an amateur.”