After the Fall
Law Finds Normality in an
Unremarkable Role in Rome

By John L. Allen Jr.
National Catholic Reporter
January 25, 2008

[See also the other articles in this feature: In Boston, Signs of Gradual Recovery Emerge and St. Mary Major Is the Right Place for Penance. See also Allen's reporting from Rome in December 2002: Law in Rome, Behind Law's Final Days, and Law Still Holds Key Vatican Positions; and A church seeks healing: Pope accepts Law's resignation in Rome, by Michael Paulson, Boston Globe, December 14, 2002.]

Editor's note: Dec. 13 marked the fifth anniversary of Cardinal Bernard Law's resignation as archbishop of Boston amid the frenzy of the sexual abuse crisis in his archdiocese and in the U.S. Catholic church — by any standard, one of the pivotal moments in recent American Catholic history. Today, Law serves as archpriest of the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome and a member of eight Vatican departments. In light of the controversy that still surrounds Law, NCR asked senior correspondent John Allen to describe Law's situation in Rome: What his activities are, how he's been received, how much influence he holds, and, to the extent possible, what sense Law makes of his circumstances. Allen reported this story from Rome during late November and early December.

Rome - Five years after the most tumultuous fall from grace in the history of American Catholicism, Cardinal Bernard Law seems to have achieved something in Rome few might have thought possible Dec. 13, 2002: a degree of normality.

Gone are the days when Law's every syllable was scrutinized on the front pages of American newspapers, when scrums of television cameras tracked him morning, noon and night. Some 4,000 miles from the eye of the storm, Law has become an accepted and largely unremarkable figure in the Eternal City, influential in certain ways, but no one's idea of a power broker.

Gone, too, are the days when he had easy access to the corridors of secular power. Those who watched Law in action still swap stories, for example, about the time Law dropped in unannounced on then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert to harangue him about debt relief for impoverished nations. A jogging suit-clad Hastert arrived out of breath, but already briefed about a conversation Law had with then-Majority Leader Dick Armey a half-hour before, in which Law said he wouldn't threaten, "It ain't over until the fat lady sings," since that would be sexist, but "until the thin guy dances."

Cardinal Bernard Law celebrates Mass on the feast of Our Lady of the Snows at the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome Aug. 5.
Photo by Alessia Giuliani

Another time, Law interceded with the Bush administration in favor of a multimillion dollar tax credit for the poor. When Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser, phoned Law to tell him he'd won, Rove joked it was the "most expensive phone call" he'd ever made. According to a former aide, Law had the perfect deadpan reply: "C'mon, Karl," Law reportedly said. "You talk to defense contractors all the time."

Those days of breathing rarified air ended in January 2002 when Suffolk County Superior Court Judge Constance Sweeney ordered the release of thousands of pages of previously secret diocesan documents, revealing the dimensions of crimes committed and concealed and sparking a revolution in Boston. (See related story.)

Though the enormity of the crisis for which he became the living symbol has hardly been forgotten, recent days in Rome have even brought flashes of the old Law.

On Nov. 27, for example, Law hosted new Cardinal Daniel DiNardo for Mass in the Basilica of St. Mary Major along with hundreds of pilgrims from Houston. Welcoming the group, Law asked that "We have in our hearts in a special way what's going on across the ocean today in Annapolis, and pray with the Holy Father for success in this effort for peace in the Middle East." It was a vintage touch for the man who once served as chair of the U.S. bishops' Committee on International Policy.

On Dec. 1, Law led another rite in St. Mary Major, this one private, in which former Episcopal Bishop Jeffrey Steenson of New Mexico and Texas was received into the Catholic church, a potential turning point in the crisis gripping the worldwide Anglican Communion. That, too, offers a flashback to Law's role as head of the office for ecumenism at the U.S. bishops' conference, and later as an architect of the "Pastoral Provision" allowing married Episcopal ministers to enter the Catholic church and be ordained priests. Steenson, expected to be ordained a priest, came to know Law in those roles and personally requested that Law receive him.

These moments, however, seem largely remembrances of things past, hinting less at rehabilitation than a reminder of the peaks from which Law has fallen. While Law today remains a voting member of eight Vatican offices — including all three responsible for the appointment of bishops — no one numbers him among the most influential princes of the church, such as Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state, or American Cardinal William Levada, who replaced Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith when Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI. Rather, he's part of a larger circle of cardinals who have some voice, but who generally fade into the ecclesiastical woodwork.

Those closest to Law say he's largely at peace with his reduced circumstances. According to one friend who has known Law since his student days at Harvard in the 1950s, Law has accepted that he will never return to the States. "He told me that he plans to be buried in the crypt of St. Mary Major," the friend said.

Whether Law merits peace is, of course, still the subject of fierce debate in the United States, where wounds of the sex abuse crisis, and Law's role in it, remain raw. Law's friends spoke only on the condition of anonymity, reluctant to reopen old wounds or to feed what they regard as biased media coverage. Law himself almost never gives interviews, least of all to American reporters.

• • •

Taking stock of the five years since Law's Dec. 13, 2002, resignation — coincidentally, the day happened to be Friday the 13th — he seems to have carved out four roles in Rome:

  • Leader of one of the most storied and beautiful basilicas in the Christian world, and a member of a tightly knit community at St. Mary Major. Law's bond with the priests who live at the basilica, known as the "chapter," allows him to live something resembling the Benedictine spirituality he has long admired;

  • A point of reference for Americans and other English-speakers visiting Rome, celebrating Masses for various delegations and providing hospitality;

  • A valued member of an unusually large number of offices in the Roman Curia, the central bureaucracy of the Catholic church, even if he rarely plays the role of "swing vote" or "kingmaker";

  • An informal voice in ecumenical dialogue. When Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury visited Rome in 2006, for example, he asked for a private session with Law, and afterward told members of his party he was impressed. Around the same time, Law received a delegation of Methodists and, according to those present, charmed them with appreciative comments about John and Charles Wesley, founders of the Methodist movement.

None of this, to be sure, adds up to the influence Law enjoyed when he was perceived as the most important cardinal in the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth. Neither, however, is it banishment. Whatever Americans may have thought back in 2002, in Rome it was always understood that Law had resigned, not retired, and that the church would find other ways, such as those listed above, to tap his talents.

Though it may be hard for some Americans to hear, the most common term cited in Rome to describe how Law has been received is "sympathy." While no one defends the sexual abuse of minors, Catholics from cultures lacking Anglo-Saxon concepts of corporate liability, which includes Italy, sometimes struggle to understand why bishops should be held accountable for the misdeeds of their priests. As a result, they're sometimes more willing to balance Law's failures against what they see as a lifetime of loyal service.

In light of that framework, some in Rome have long seen Law's resignation less as a symbol of disgrace than an act of self-sacrifice.

One former senior Vatican official, now retired, told a story illustrating that view. Shortly before the resignation, this official said, then-Vatican spokesperson Joaquín Navarro-Valls was invited to lunch with Law in the Vatican residence of Archbishop James Harvey, an American who serves as head of the papal household and one of Law's closest friends. The agenda was to discuss whether Law should step down, a choice left in his hands by Pope John Paul II. According to this official, Navarro-Valls, a Spaniard, initially tried to persuade Law to hang on, warning of a "domino effect" that could bring down other bishops facing similar crises. Harvey, perhaps more in touch with American realities, was inclined to believe Law should go. Throughout the lunch, this official said, Law stressed that he would do whatever was in the best interests of the church, and by the end a consensus emerged that resignation was the right choice.

In light of the conflicting reactions Law still elicits, from those who see him as a villain to those who regard him as a scapegoat for a much larger systemic problem, his current reality will probably leave few fully satisfied.

For those most heartsick about the crisis, especially abuse victims and their advocates, the fact that Law plays any role at all is "Exhibit A" for the case that the church still hasn't learned its lesson.

Meanwhile, Law sympathizers may be equally frustrated that he seems about as close to rehabilitation as he's likely to get. While Law has been confirmed informally as St. Mary Major's archpriest, the honorary title accorded spiritual leaders of Roman basilicas, at least through his 80th birthday in 2011, everyone knows he's still persona non grata in the United States, and even in Rome he's sometimes kept at arm's length — welcome, but rarely celebrated.

• • •

Given that the details of Law's handling of notorious abuser-priests such as John Geoghan and Paul Shanley have been endlessly dissected, the first question many Americans ask about him today boils down to this: "Does he get it?" That is, does Law understand the suffering the sexual abuse crisis caused, and his own role in failing to come to grips with it? Or is he, to use the language of pop psychology, "in denial"?

Only Law could provide the answer, and he's not talking. What friends do report, however, is that the 76-year-old Law, an only child without close living relatives, has gradually achieved spiritual calm — though only after considerable struggle, they say, with what one described as "a deep wound."

"He knows he made some bad decisions that caused harm to other people, and this is the consequence," one American priest said who is close to Law. "Yet he struggled with what he saw as a lack of support from his priests, and a failure to recognize his contributions — his commitment to foreign missions, to the poor, to the unborn, and so on. It's almost as if the good he did was just cast aside. He had to learn to put himself in God's hands."

"He has survived on the basis of his own spiritual life," another Law confidante said. "He's in exile, doing penance."

A shower of petals falls from the ceiling of St. Mary Major Aug. 5, 2003, commemorating a miraculous snowfall in 352.(See related story.)
Photo by Pier Paolo Cito

Law's base at St. Mary Major, known more for its air of classic Catholic spirituality than as a citadel of ecclesiastical power, may provide an appropriate setting for that penance.

When his appointment as archpriest was announced in May 2004, The New York Times reported that Law would be receiving a monthly salary of $12,000 and a magnificent apartment. His reality is more prosaic. Law receives the standard Roman cardinal's stipend of roughly 4,000 Euro a month (about $5,800 at current exchange rates), and lives in a modest two-story apartment in the basilica that also houses his private secretary and a small community of nuns from Mexico who run his household.

As is often the case with Type A personalities, Law seems to have found consolation in work. His role at St. Mary Major is not only to administer the basilica — overseeing the installation of a new lighting system, for example, raising funds for renovations, and managing a staff of some 65 people — but also to foster its spiritual life, and sources say he's thrown himself into it with characteristic drive.

In May 2005, for example, Law gave a rare interview to L'Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian bishops' conference, inviting Romans to a traditional Forty Hours devotion in which the Blessed Sacrament is exposed for round-the-clock veneration. The year before, Law led Lenten reflections on the Eucharist. Almost every Sunday, Law presides over the main 10 a.m. Mass, delivering a brief homily in Italian. (Born in Torreón, Mexico, Law is fluent in Spanish and has worked to acquire sufficient mastery of Italian to preach comfortably.)

Law has also built a strong bond with the 25 resident clergy at St. Mary Major, known as canons, including Msgr. Paul McInerny, the Boston priest who serves as Law's private secretary and chief aide. Sources say Law prays the Liturgy of the Hours with the canons and sees the chapter as a sort of spiritual community.

"Bernie has always admired the Benedictines, and he runs St. Mary Major like a Benedictine monastery," said one American friend.

From St. Mary Major, Law has also become a point of reference for Americans and other English-speakers visiting Rome and its environs. In September, when a group of Americans and Canadians visited Capracotta in south central Italy to erect a statue in honor of ancestors who emigrated to North America, Law came down to say Mass. (Other American prelates in Rome, however, such as Levada and Cardinal John Foley, are generally regarded as more popular hosts for visiting groups, with Law sometimes cast as a "consolation prize.")

Law also occasionally makes the Roman social scene, such as diplomatic receptions and dinner parties. During the consistory in November, for example, Law attended a reception at the Irish College for new Cardinal Sean Brady of Armagh, Northern Ireland. Most observers say the buzz that once accompanied sightings of Law on such occasions has largely dissipated — though one American in Rome who makes the same rounds said, "The look on people's faces is one of politeness, but many act as if there is an elephant in the room they are not supposed to see," adding that Law usually comes early and leaves early.

• • •

Despite media fascination with Law's role at St. Mary Major, which burst into public view after the death of Pope John Paul II when Law led one of the funeral Masses, Catholic insiders have long understood the post is mostly ceremonial. For those interested in Law's continuing influence, the real story is the imposing number of Vatican offices where he still wields a vote and a voice.

As of this writing, Law is a member of the following dicasteries, or departments, of the Roman Curia:
  • The Congregation for Bishops

  • The Congregation for Eastern Churches

  • The Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples

  • The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments

  • The Congregation for Clergy

  • The Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life

  • The Congregation for Catholic Education

  • The Pontifical Council for the Family.
The first three offices — Bishops, Eastern Churches and Evangelization (popularly known by its old name, "Propaganda Fidei") — share responsibility for appointment of bishops. The Congregation for Bishops prepares nominations for Latin Rite dioceses in Europe, North America and other developed nations; Propaganda Fidei handles mission territories; and Eastern Churches is responsible for Eastern rite churches in communion with Rome. Although the final word belongs to the pope, in most cases he relies on the top pick submitted by the relevant Vatican office.

The fact that Law belongs to all three means there's no appointment of a bishop anywhere in the world in which he's not involved, at least in theory. Only Bertone, the secretary of state, shares the distinction of sitting on all three bodies.

Prelates who belong to these dicasteries, as well as priests who serve as their staff, are notoriously reluctant to describe their inner workings, but sources contacted by NCR in late November were willing to characterize Law's contributions in general terms.

Law prepares assiduously for meetings, these sources said, poring over preparatory materials and drawing on his network of international contacts. Since he's based in Rome, he can participate on a more regular basis. (The normal pattern is for Roman cardinals who belong to a given dicastery to attend its regular business meetings — twice a month in the case of the Congregation for Bishops — while cardinals elsewhere sometimes come only for annual plenary assemblies.)

Yet no source could point to a single appointment since Law's arrival in Rome in 2004, whether to a diocese in the United States or elsewhere, or in the Vatican itself, that seemed unambiguously to bear Law's fingerprints.

On bishops' appointments, these sources said, Law has earned a reputation for being "objective," which, in Vatican argot, means that he does not appear to be angling to get his friends appointed. Rather, they say, he looks at the names recommended by the nuncio, or papal ambassador, and offers a candid assessment.

Law is one of four Americans who sit on the Congregation for Bishops, the others being Levada, Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, and Cardinal Francis Stafford of the Apostolic Penitentiary. By most accounts, Rigali and Levada exercise greater influence; both Archbishops Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., and Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee, for example, are former auxiliaries of Rigali from St. Louis, while Levada was instrumental in sending his friend and seminary classmate George Niederauer to San Francisco.

Vatican sources say that even absent the sex abuse crisis, Law's influence would probably be diminished today because his longtime friend, Polish Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, is no longer the private secretary to the pope.

More broadly, church-watchers say, it's difficult to find evidence that Law is using his role to shape events in the American church. At least in Boston, Cardinal Sean O'Malley has said publicly that he does not consult with Law prior to making decisions. Sources in the Boston chancery who spoke to NCR confirmed that assertion, saying they've never seen O'Malley contact Law prior to taking an important step.

Law's friends insist he doesn't aspire to wield long-distance control.

"He's moved on," one said. "He's aware of what's happening [in America], but he's not trying to manipulate things."

That, of course, is a friendly perspective. Critics often argue that whatever Law's actual influence, the fact that he sits on the Congregation for Bishops, the Vatican office responsible not only for appointing bishops but also for correcting their misconduct, is testament to an enormous bit of unfinished business — the absence of any mechanism for holding bishops accountable for mismanagement in the same firm fashion that priests are now held accountable for abuse.

Be that as it may, the truth is that Law doesn't even have to try in order to exercise gravitational pull. When plans began to circulate for Pope Benedict XVI's April 15-20 visit to the United States, for example, two American cardinals, O'Malley and Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, proposed that the pope visit Boston to meet with victims of sexual abuse. In the end, that idea was dropped, partly out of fear of reawakening the tumult of the past. Although no one would put it quite like this, organizers did not want the specter of Bernard Law to cloud the trip.

• • •

To some extent, Law's diminished but still active life in Rome is part of the arc of any major scandal. People who rise to great heights usually get there because they're aggressive and talented, and even after a fall from grace, they don't simply disappear. Richard Nixon retired to San Clemente after Watergate, wrote his memoirs and played the part of elder statesman. After serving two years in prison for securities fraud, financier Michael Milken has gone on to a highly public role as a philanthropist.

Even if Law has not faded away, however, he has shown little appetite for sifting through the ashes of his past, routinely spurning offers to discuss the events that brought him down. Last year, for example, a major American publisher asked a writer to approach Law about cooperating with a biography, with the lure of a mid-six-figure advance. Through intermediaries, Law sent back word that he wasn't interested, saying that the story could be told after he's dead.

So far, the closest Law has come to public reflection was in that May 2005 interview with L'Avvenire, when veteran Italian journalist Gianni Cardinale asked Law for an impression of Benedict XVI. Law spoke of Benedict's gentleness, capacity to listen, and respect for others. Cardinale observed that those qualities don't jibe with the Darth Vader-esque reputation Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger acquired at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

"I'm talking about reality, not about image," Law replied. "One's image is often a phantasm created by the mass media and by public opinion." It was hard to escape the impression that Law was, at least unconsciously, also talking about himself.

Whether Bernard Law's image as the poster boy of the American sexual abuse crisis is more phantasm or reality is, ultimately, a matter for historians to settle. Five years after his resignation, however, it seems that the ghosts of the past trouble Law less than they once did. That may not amount to redemption, but from the outside, it at least looks like relief.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR senior correspondent. His e-mail address is


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