New York (AFP) - Cardinal Bernard Law, one of the most influential Catholic prelates in the United States until he resigned in disgrace for covering up decades of sexual abuse, died on Wednesday. He was 86.
The Harvard-educated former archbishop, who rubbed elbows with presidents and promoted social justice for immigrants and the poor, died in Rome. He had moved there after his 2002 resignation as the abuse scandal unleashed a major crisis in the Catholic Church that continues to reverberate around the world.
Evidence that he protected pedophile priests for years and hushed up their abuse of children to protect the church hierarchy shattered his once-venerated career and triggered an avalanche of molestation scandals reaching from Ireland to Australia and from Haiti to the Philippines.
Law died on Wednesday after a long illness, the Vatican said. Pope Francis will perform last rites at his funeral Thursday at Saint Peter's Basilica, triggering outrage from abuse victims who say he deserves a more ignominious end.
The molestation scandal hit Boston like an avalanche in January 2002, with hundreds of people coming forward to claim they had been abused by priests. Mushrooming allegations and mounting pressure ultimately forced Law to resign that December.
The case became the subject of the Oscar-winning 2015 Hollywood movie "Spotlight," centered on how the Boston Globe newspaper uncovered the scandal -- work that earned the Globe's investigative team a Pulitzer Prize.
"I would prefer to see him tied to a cross and burned," victim Alexa MacPherson told a news conference in Boston on Wednesday.
"I don't think the Pope gets it at all," she said. "It's time to bring forth change, and if you say that you want that, then you don't celebrate this man's legacy."
"I just hope that man suffered every day of his life, knowing what he did," said fellow victim Robert Costello, 56. "I think he should die like Osama bin Laden," Costello added, referring to the Al-Qaeda leader's burial at sea with no plaque or marked site.
"It should just be that the man disappears. The Pope is honoring him and saying its okay to abuse children by saying a Mass for this man. He doesn't deserve it, and this could bring a slew of people forward."
Law was initially accused of moving priest John Geoghan from parish to parish, despite knowing that Geoghan was believed to have abused up to 130 boys.
- 'Sincere apologies' -
The Spotlight reporters later discovered that the local Catholic hierarchy, led by Law, systematically covered up sexual abuse by some 90 priests over decades.
In 2015, the National Catholic Reporter said the US Catholic Church had incurred nearly $4 billion in costs related to the abuse crisis over 65 years, well above the nearly $3 billion figure often cited.
The current archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley, acknowledged that Law's death "brings forth a wide range of emotions" and apologized to sexual abuse victims.
"To those men and women, I offer my sincere apologies for the harm they suffered, my continued prayers and my promise that the archdiocese will support them in their effort to achieve healing," he said in a statement.
- Known as an authoritarian -
Born in Torreon, Mexico on November 4, 1931, the son of a US Air Force colonel, Law grew up on military bases before studying medieval history at Harvard University.
He began his priesthood studies in 1953 and was ordained in Mississippi in 1961, becoming known nationally for his ecumenical work on social welfare and civil rights.
In 1984, Pope John Paul II declared him archbishop of Boston -- at the time the third-largest diocese in the United States -- where he was known as a conservative and authoritarian leader, but one who nonetheless built bridges with the Jewish community.
Close to the pope, he was a staunch opponent of abortion and birth control. He hewed to strict church orthodoxy on issues like ordaining women or loosening traditional celibacy rules of the priesthood.
After first retreating to a convent in Maryland in 2002, he was transferred to a low-key position in a Rome basilica in 2004. He is to be buried in Rome.
"Cardinal Law was an individual who allowed innocent children to be sexually abused... (He) chose to turn his back on innocent children," Boston attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who specializes in sexual abuse cases, told AFP.
As victims continue to come forward across the world, Pope Francis has vowed a "zero tolerance" policy toward sexual abuse, but has been accused of being too soft on pedophiles, extending to them a general policy of mercy he is promoting.