Nearly four years removed from the clergy sex-abuse crisis that finally forced him to resign as archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Law remains a highly respected member of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy in Rome. As archpriest of St. Mary Major, he runs one of the Eternal City’s four patriarchal basilicas, a post that offers him a worthy setting in which to express his well-known flair for liturgical ceremony. The church, which features a special altar reserved for the use of the pope, predates the fall of the Roman empire and contains 15 centuries’ worth of priceless art. Surely the man who raised a $1.5 million private donation to refurbish Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross appreciates the privilege of offering Mass surrounded by fifth-century mosaics and an ornate ceiling that is said to have been gilded with the first haul of ore Columbus brought back from the New World.It's important to note that many senior prelates on this side of the Pond continue to feel that Law had gotten a raw deal and maintain great affection, support and sympathy for him. If anything, the perception that the cardinal "took one for the team" has heightened the respect in which he's held by many people, and that alone leads to enhanced influence and goodwill.
Law’s Roman flock clearly appreciates his presence as well. On a Sunday this past spring, Mass began with one of the basilica’s canons congratulating the cardinal on the 45th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, a statement the congregation greeted with applause. Law, thanking the canon with an embrace, seemed touched. Slimmer now than when he assumed the archpriest’s job two years earlier, and moving without difficulty since his recovery from back surgery, he appeared at ease and in command. Yet in his manner and words, the cardinal gave off an air of detachment. In his brief homily at that anniversary Mass, delivered in his heavily accented Italian, he confined himself to a general commentary on the day’s gospel reading. He did not share a single reference to his own life or to the career his parishioners honored that morning. For a listener aware of the fierce controversy that brought him here, that omission was conspicuous, and underscored the unlikeliness of his present post....
When the St. Mary Major appointment became official in May 2004, Law’s Boston critics blasted the move, accusing the Vatican of callousness at best, and at worst of rewarding Law’s efforts to cover up for predator priests. Few laypeople were convinced the cardinal had properly atoned for his sins. One abuse victim told the Globe: “I can’t even explain to you the pit I felt in my stomach.”
It was not only the position’s prestige that aroused objections, but the luxury that reportedly went with it. Internet chatter described the archpriest’s apartment, housed in a building attached to the basilica’s south side, as “palatial,” with “frescoes on the wall.” Those who’ve visited say the space consists of six or seven nicely appointed rooms—a far cry from the four-story mansion on Commonwealth Avenue that Law lived in here, but nonetheless a decent spread in the Esquilino neighborhood, where real estate easily runs upward of $400 per square foot. The New York Times reported that Law would receive a stipend of $12,000 per month, but in fact, the amount is about $5,000, out of which the cardinal pays living expenses for himself and the two or three nuns who keep house for him. All in all, it’s a comfortable existence. Law regularly attends diplomatic and social events, and is occasionally seen dining out with friends. One of his favorite spots is said to be Cecilia Metella, a moderately expensive country restaurant on the Via Appia Antica where the prix fixe dinners run between $60 and $85....
In his supposed exile, Cardinal Law has found a measure of forgiveness. “I don’t know anyone at the Vatican who would defend Law’s handling of the sex abuse case,” John Allen says. “But many people in Rome would say that he paid the price in the form of his resignation and that there’s no reason that he shouldn’t make a contribution.”
The story, however, leaves out two notable developments of Law's sojourn in Rome. The first was the February appointment of Msgr Paul McInerny, the cardinal's longtime personal aide, as a canon of St Mary Major, a lifetime post which comes with a comfortable stipend and an apartment in the basilica's canonry. Conferred at Law's behest, it was an indicator that he enjoyed favor at the top even beyond the death of John Paul II, who never forgot the cardinal's recommendation for a new universal catechism at the 1985 Synod of Bishops -- an idea which became one of the key achievements of the Wojtyla papacy.
The second came in May, when the American contingent of Vatican officials and senior prelates in Rome gathered for their annual lunch at the Villa Stritch. Alerted in advance that Law would be present, a few veteran US curialists sought to convey their disapproval by absenting themselves from the event.
Elsewhere on the Beantown beat, as Cardinal Sean O'Malley awaits the long-anticipated announcement of his new auxiliary bishops, the Caritas Christi archdiocesan health system took another hit with the resignations of two more of its top names. Earlier this summer, the head of the system quit under pressure after charges of sexual-harassment dominated the headlines and provided yet another destabilizing moment for the scandal-scarred archdiocese of Boston.
PHOTO: Boston Magazine