Boston opened 'Pandora's box' of clergy sex abuse worldwide

Cardinal Bernard Law became a symbol of the Roman Catholic Church's widespread failure to protect children as he presided over a cover-up of sexual abuse by priests in Boston's archdiocese. A global reckoning in the church is still happening today, 15 years after he resigned as archbishop.

As abuse victim Robert Costello put it on Wednesday, the day Law died, Boston was just the beginning.

"It happened in Haiti at an orphanage. It happened in the Philippines," Costello said. "It happened in England and Germany and especially in Ireland. We opened Pandora's box here in Boston, and it went global."


Law became archbishop in Boston, one of the nation's most influential dioceses, in 1984 and was elevated to cardinal the following year. The powerful position gave him sway in the church within the United States and at the Vatican, as well as in American politics, as he visited the White House and went after Catholic politicians who supported abortion rights.

Behind the scenes, Law used his authority to hide the widespread abuse of children by priests, secretively shuffling them from parish to parish without telling parents or police, and allowing the abusers to find more targets. The cover-ups were revealed in a series of reports in The Boston Globe in 2002, depicted in the Oscar-winning film "Spotlight."

A 2003 report by the Massachusetts attorney general said that more than 1,000 children may have been molested by more than 250 priests and church workers from 1940 to 2000.



The scope of the crisis in Boston set off reports around the United States and the world of widespread abuse by priests, and efforts by the church to hide it.

Since 1950, more than 6,500 American priests have been accused of abusing thousands of children, according to news reports and studies commissioned by U.S. bishops. The American church alone has paid out an estimated $3 billion in awards and settlements.

In addition to the cover-ups, dozens of Catholic bishops have themselves been accused of abusing children worldwide, according to the website, which tracks abuse in the church. The group's Terry McKiernan said Wednesday that there are no available numbers for how many total priests have been accused globally.

But in 2014, a U.N. human rights panel issued a report saying that the Vatican had allowed priests to sexually abuse tens of thousands of children worldwide over decades.

Reports of abuse continue to emerge. In Pope Francis' native Argentina, an Associated Press analysis in October found the number of clerics publicly identified as alleged sexual abusers has increased dramatically in the last two years. Just last week, an Australian inquiry into child abuse reported that the church received more than 4,000 claims of child abuse from 1980 to 2015. The Australian commission found catastrophic failures of leadership by the church over a period of decades.



Law resigned as Boston archbishop at the end of 2002, but he later received plum assignments in Rome.

Many victims of abusive priests saw the moves as a mark of the Vatican's indifference to the issue.

St. John Paul II was criticized for how he handled abusive priests during his papacy. His successor, Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, took a harder line against sexual abuse.

Pope Francis has said Rome would show "zero tolerance" for sexual abuse, but many survivors have found his efforts wanting. For example, a proposed Vatican tribunal to prosecute bishops who let abuse run unchecked failed to materialize.

The abuse scandal this year reached deep into the Vatican. Cardinal George Pell, a top adviser to Pope Francis, became the most senior Catholic official to face sex abuse charges when he was charged in his native Australia with multiple offenses from decades ago. Pell has vowed to fight the charges.

In September, a senior Vatican diplomat was recalled from Washington amid a child pornography investigation. Canadian police issued an arrest warrant for him later that month, but he remains in Rome amid a Vatican investigation.



Pope Francis is set to preside at Law's funeral Thursday at St. Peter's Basilica.