VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis is set to preside over the final rites in the funeral Mass for Cardinal Bernard Law, symbol of the Catholic Church's failure to protect children from pedophile priests and its arrogance in safeguarding its own reputation at all costs.
The dean of the college of cardinals, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, will celebrate Law's funeral Mass on Thursday behind the main altar of St. Peter's Basilica. Following the typical protocol, Francis is expected to preside over a final prayer, a blessing with incense and the sprinkling of holy water around Law's coffin.
U.S. Ambassador-designate Callista Gingrich and her husband, Newt, as well as some other members of the diplomatic corps were on hand in the pews, along with the Vatican foreign minister, Archbishop Paul Gallagher.
Turnout was otherwise limited, with the basilica ushers stacking extra rows of empty seats before the Mass began.
One of the opening prayers reads: "O God, who chose your servant Cardinal Bernard Law from among your priests and endowed him with pontifical dignity in the apostolic priesthood, grant, we pray, that he may also be admitted to their company forever."
Law, who died Wednesday at age 86, resigned in disgrace as archbishop of Boston in 2002 after revelations that he covered up for dozens of priests who raped and sexually molested children, moving them to different parishes without telling parents or police.
The scandal, exposed by The Boston Globe and memorialized in the Oscar-winning film "Spotlight," then spread throughout the U.S. and world, with thousands of people from all continents coming forward in ensuing years with claims their priests sexually abused them when they were children.
St. John Paul II's decision to promote Law to head a major Rome basilica in 2004 reinforced the impression that the Vatican — which had turned a blind eye to abuse for decades — still hadn't grasped the scale of the problem, the trauma it caused its victims, and the moral credibility it had lost as a result.
Francis has inherited that legacy, and has promised "zero tolerance" for abuse. But his own record has been marked by questionable appointments, a reneged proposal to create a Vatican tribunal to prosecute negligent bishops like Law, and giving the issue less urgency than his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.
Just this week, Francis' much-hyped commission of experts to advise the church on keeping children safe was allowed to lapse after its initial three-year mandate.
Sodano was John Paul's powerful secretary of state at the time of Law's downfall and would have been instrumental in the decisions the Vatican took in those years to deal with the burgeoning scandal.
But Sodano himself has a tainted legacy, having been a key supporter of the Rev. Marcial Maciel, the drug-addicted founder of the Legion of Christ religious order who sexually abused his seminarians and fathered three children. It was only after John Paul died and Sodano was sidelined that Benedict ordered Maciel to live a lifetime of "penance and prayer" for his crimes.
Sodano, who presides over all funerals for Rome-based cardinals, often offers a eulogy, though it is not transcribed or published by the Vatican.