JACKSON, Mississippi — Mississippi Catholics have different views of Cardinal Bernard Law, who died in Rome after being admitted to hospice care. He was 86.
Around the world, many remembered Law on Wednesday as the disgraced former archbishop of Boston whose failure to stop child molesters in the priesthood triggered the worst crisis in American Catholicism.
The Clarion-Ledger reports the knowledge of his cover-ups, however, conflict with the man people in Mississippi knew as a champion of civil rights.
Janna Avalon, former editor of Mississippi Catholic, remembers Law as a purveyor of social justice. She says during the civil rights movement, Law often wrote editorials encouraging Catholics to stand up for equal rights.
“He was a wonderful editorial writer so he got into lots of issues that some of the other newspapers around were timid about getting into,” Avalon said. “He was not timid at all about how he spoke to Catholics about our obligations for social justice.”
Law’s friend, Mary Woodward, director of the Office of Liturgy and Worship for the Diocese of Jackson, said Law had “great concern for the poor and marginalized” and fought against racism and segregation.
“When he was here he was pretty much on the front lines of the civil rights movement,” Woodward said.
After the death of Medgar Evers, Law was one of the first at the family’s side, she said.
Law served as a priest in the Diocese of then Natchez-Jackson from 1961-1973. He served in that capacity until his appointment as Bishop of Springfield-Cape Girardeau in Missouri on Oct. 23, 1973. On Jan. 11, 1984, he was appointed Archbishop of Boston and elevated to the College of Cardinals on May 25, 1985.
“During his time here, he was a tireless and ardent supporter of the Civil Rights Movement. While many will criticize his harmful decisions while he was Archbishop in Boston, others, especially here in Mississippi, remember his work as a pastor and an advocate for social justice,” said Bishop Joseph Kopacz, bishop of the Diocese of Jackson, in a statement.
Avalon said Law was particularly passionate about voting rights. His “forward thinking” played a large role in his involvement in the creation of the Mississippi Religious Leadership Conference, she said.
All of his work in Mississippi was overshadowed, however, when a Boston Globe investigation revealed Law had covered up numerous predatory priests who preyed on members of their congregation, molesting and raping children.
“All the issues in Boston that seem to take away some of the positivity of his career made people here sad,” Avalon said. “He inherited all of that but that’s not to say we didn’t have problems here as well. It was not just in Boston that there were problems, but Boston became the open door to show those difficulties in the church.”
“I think he had seen what was going on. Personally, I don’t think the bishops knew exactly what to do back them so they shifted folks around rather than what they started doing in 2001 and dealing with the massiveness of the problem.”
Woodward had lunch with Law shortly after he resigned in 2002 in Boston.
“He always expressed concern and remorse and regret for what happened, but we all make bad decisions, and I think he carried the burden of the church on his shoulders very gracefully.”
The Law Woodward knew was “one of the kindest, most prayerful people you would ever meet.”
“He would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it,” she said. “In spite of everything, he was still a good priest and a good Christian man that always just wanted to serve the Lord and serve people in sometimes very difficult circumstances. He’ll be remembered for that which is unfortunate.He’s not the monster people make him out to be. Just a very kind, good person.”