Ex-Archbishop’s New Flock Shrugs off Past
Cardinal Bernard Law holds first public Mass in Rome
August 5, 2004
ROME - Cardinal Bernard Law, who was forced to resign as archbishop of Boston over a sexual abuse scandal, celebrated his first public Mass Thursday since taking up a prestigious new post in the Italian Church.
Law, resplendent in white robes and golden miter, presided over a packed service marking the feast day of the Rome Basilica of St. Mary Major, the ornate church which Pope John Paul entrusted to him earlier this year.
Some foreign tourists said they were shocked to see Law back in the limelight, but he received a warm reception from the local Italian flock, who appeared unruffled by his clouded past.
"It went beautifully. It was very moving for me," a beaming Law said at the end of the service, with faithful crowding round, hoping to kiss his ringed hand and receive a blessing.
Law was at the epicenter of the U.S. church abuse scandals when it emerged that he had reassigned priests known to have sexually abused minors to new parishes instead of defrocking them or reporting them to the civil authorities.
Dozens of his own priests publicly called on him to step down, and he eventually resigned in disgrace in December 2002.
One American visitor to St. Mary Major was taken aback to see Law leading Thursday's service in the baroque basilica — one of the most important churches in the Italian capital.
"I think it's a disgrace for him to be here," said David Adrian, a 22-year-old student from Philadelphia.
A middle-aged Catholic from Britain was even more outspoken. "It's an abomination," said Donald Lundy, who lives near Glasgow in Scotland. "He shouldn't be allowed to be a spiritual guide."
Since leaving Boston, Law has spent much of his time in Italy and was appointed archpriest of St. Mary Major in May. The archpriest is the senior figure in a cathedral or a basilica, who is responsible for how it is run.
Thursday's service marked the founding of the basilica. According to legend, the Virgin Mary appeared to the pope in August, 352 AD and told him to go to Rome's Esquiline Hill and build a church on a spot covered with newly fallen snow.
To commemorate the event, white rose petals were showered from the gilt-encrusted ceiling onto the nave.
"What a miracle it would be to have a snow fall now to cool down this sweltering August day," Law told the hundreds of flushed, pink-faced worshipers.
Many Italians attending the service said they had no idea about Law's role in the U.S. scandals. Those who did know appeared unbothered.
"I don't see the problem. It isn't for me to judge him," said Francesco Petrone, a publisher. "Too often nowadays the public sits in judgment of people. It's like the French Revolution, where old ladies knitted under the guillotine."
The U.S. church has paid nearly $700 million in damages to abuse victims, including some $85 million paid out by the Archdiocese of Boston.
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