CARDINALS and bishops in white mitres flanked the casket of Cardinal Bernard Law when Pope Francis solemnly blessed it. The pope spared no pomp during the funeral mass for the former archbishop of Boston, which was celebrated in St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican on December 21st. In Latin, he prayed that Cardinal Law “be given a merciful judgment...freed from punishment, reconciled to the Father...deserve to enter fully into everlasting happiness”. 

Plenty of people in Boston believe that the cardinal does not deserve any of that, never mind the fancy Vatican funeral.

Cardinal Law, who died on December 20th, resigned in disgrace in 2002 after the Boston Globe, a newspaper, exposed the sexual abuse of hundreds of children at the hands of priests who were systematically protected by the diocese. For years the cardinal knowingly transferred abusive priests to new parish posts where they continued to have access to children. He did not tell the police or his congregants. In 2003, the Massachusetts attorney-general found that the cover-up efforts were part of a pattern that went back at least six decades and involved more than 235 priests and 790 children. Of these, 48 priests and church staff preyed on children on Cardinal Law’s watch.

The revelations rocked Boston and caused ripples throughout the Catholic world. The city’s faithful, sickened by the details of the abuse their bishop had enabled, demanded his resignation. The reaction was compounded by the fact that Cardinal Law had been a popular and respected archbishop. He was one of Boston’s power players, close to the great and the supposedly good of Massachusetts and a confidant of Pope John Paul II and later Pope Benedict. There had been talk of him becoming the first American pope.

The scandal put an end to such talk. Besides stomach-churning details of the abuse, the documents which the Boston Globe’s journalists uncovered revealed the extent of complicity between the archbishop and those accused of child abuse. Among the files was a note of support from Cardinal Law to John Geoghan, a priest who had been accused of abusing more than 130 children. “If I can be of help to you in some way please contact me.” The documents also revealed that the cardinal ignored requests for help from the parents of traumatised victims. Yet he was never criminally charged: at the time clergy were not required to report abuse of children to the police.

That has changed. Since Cardinal Law’s resignation, several states have made it a criminal offence not to report child abuse. The church has adopted a zero-tolerance policy which helped remove 700 priests from the ministry. In Boston, priests and church staff who work with children now have to pass a criminal background check and must undergo special training. The church has paid out millions in settlements to victims. The mansion in which the cardinal once lived was sold to help pay legal costs. 

The scandal also eroded the church’s authority in former Catholic strongholds such as Boston, New York and Philadelphia. The men of the cloth are no longer revered; their word is no longer seen as gospel. More parishioners are willing to challenge their church, which failed them for so long.

Yet change is slow—too slow, say those who fight to stop abuse and seek redress for the victims. The Vatican has begun to make conciliatory noises. But just this week a Pontifical commission, which was meant to develop best practices to prevent sexual abuse, was allowed to lapse when its members’ terms were not extended. And Cardinal Law’s forced retirement was hardly punishing: he was put in charge of Santa Maria Maggiore, one of Rome’s four major basilicas, and allowed to participate in the conclave that elected Pope Benedict.

For the victims of the abuse he covered up and enabled, the news of the cardinal’s death has reopened wounds that had barely healed. Alexa MacPherson, along with her two brothers, was sexually abused by her pastor between the ages of three and nine. Referring to Cardinal Law as she addressed a press conference convened by her lawyer in Boston on December 20th, Ms MacPherson said that by shielding her abuser, “you covered it up. You made us disappear.”

Bishops may no longer be above the law in America. But that is scant comfort for those whose lives have been ruined by abuse.