Cardinal Bernard Law passed away at the age of 86 on Dec. 20. Law resigned as Boston’s archbishop in 2002 after a Boston Globe investigation revealed that he had known about rampant child molestation by parish priests for years. (Reuters)

Cardinal Bernard F. Law, the Boston archbishop who became one of the most influential Catholic leaders in the United States before resigning in 2002 amid revelations that he and other prelates had known for years of rampant child molestation by parish priests, a scandal that has been called the church’s darkest crisis of the modern era, has died at 86.

The Vatican announced in a statement early Wednesday that Cardinal Law died “after a long illness,” without offering further details. He had been recently hospitalized in Rome.

For more than half a century, Cardinal Law dedicated himself to the church, an institution that became his home after his itinerant upbringing as the son of a commercial and military aviator. As he rose from parish priest to Boston archbishop — the steward of one of the most Catholic American cities — he promoted traditional Catholic doctrine and envisioned the church as a guarantor of social justice in the 20th century.

He began his ministry in segregated Mississippi, where he used his authority as editor of a diocesan publication to denounce racism. Later, as a bishop in Missouri, he made room at a seminary for about 200 Vietnamese priests and brothers who had left their home after the fall of Saigon in 1975.

Cardinal Law’s theology transcended scripture to encompass affordable housing and literacy education. Poor countries, like poor parishes, he argued, at times deserved debt forgiveness from their creditors. Years before Pope John Paul II began his historic efforts to mend the church’s scarred relationship with the Jewish community, Cardinal Law sought interreligious dialogue.

Cardinal Law, center, appears in Boston's Suffolk County Superior Court in 2002 for a hearing in the Geoghan case. (George Martell/Pool/ Boston Herald)

On matters of theology, he shared John Paul’s doctrinal conservatism. He became one of the pope’s “point men” in the United States, said David Gibson, an authority on the Catholic Church, as John Paul sought to reshape its ranks by identifying like-minded priests and installing them as bishops, archbishops and cardinals.

But controversy engulfed Cardinal Law in the early 2000s, when a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation by the Boston Globe, later dramatized in the Academy Award-winning film “Spotlight,” led to revelations that church officials had covered up sexual abuse in the priesthood for decades by shuffling alleged offenders among parishes.

Cardinal Law was never accused of committing sexual abuse, and he denounced the offense as a “terrible evil.” But for many Catholics as well as non-Catholics, he became a symbol of the church’s failure to protect the young from priests who exploited the trust that traditionally accompanies their role.

“While I would hope that it would be understood that I never intended to place a priest in a position where I felt he would be a risk to children,” Cardinal Law said in an apology in November 2002, “the fact of the matter remains that I did assign priests who had committed sexual abuse.”

In the course of legal proceedings arising from the scandal, Cardinal Law was called to give depositions in several civil cases and, in February 2003, appeared before a criminal grand jury considering potential indictments of him and other high-ranking ­Boston-area prelates.

Later that year, then-Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly concluded that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute the Boston Archdiocese or its leaders. But his office released a report on the matter, declaring that “the mistreatment of children was so massive and so prolonged that it borders on the unbelievable.”

Although not bearing sole responsibility for the wrongdoing, Cardinal Law, the report found, “had direct knowledge of the scope, duration and severity of the crisis experienced by children in the Archdiocese; he participated directly in crucial decisions concerning the assignment of abusive priests, decisions that typically increased the risk to children.”

Among the most notorious offenders in the Boston area was Father John J. Geoghan. Church documents unearthed as the scandal was uncovered showed that Cardinal Law had known of accusations against Geoghan and still permitted the priest to continue his pastoral work. In all, Geoghan would be accused of abusing 150 children, mainly boys, over decades and in numerous parishes.

Another priest, Peter J. Frost, was removed from active ministry in 1992 and later described himself in a letter to Cardinal Law as a “sex addict,” also revealing that one of his victims had committed suicide.

In later correspondence, Cardinal Law told Frost that he hoped the priest would one day “return to an appropriate ministry, bringing with [him] the wisdom which emerges from difficult experience.” Frost was ultimately removed from the clerical state.

In a 2002 civil deposition related to the case of Paul R. Shanley, a priest who was later defrocked and then convicted in 2005 of child rape and other charges, Cardinal Law presented himself as a leader who had delegated many personnel matters to his subordinates.

He attributed the shroud of secrecy about abusive priests to concern for victims and their privacy. A victims’ lawyer pressed him on the point, suggesting that “there have been other focuses, have there not, Cardinal Law?”

“There have been and there are,” he replied, according to an account in the Globe.

“One of those has been to avoid scandal in the church?” the lawyer asked.

“That’s correct,” Cardinal Law said.

As reports mounted of coverups in dioceses around the world, some church leaders argued that they had been ignorant of the trauma of sexual abuse and that they had treated offending priests not as criminals, but as sinners deserving of mercy. That defense was insufficient for many victims and other critics, who charged that church officials — exemplified by Cardinal Law — had guarded their ranks at the expense of children.

“Many could read his career as a cautionary tale about the perils of power in the church,” said Gibson, a national reporter for the Religion News Service and author of “The Coming Catholic Church” (2003). “He became a creature of and a victim of the clerical culture. . . . There were bishops right, left and center who did the same things that he did.”

Cardinal Law stepped down as archbishop on Dec. 13, 2002, and later moved to Rome, where he served, until shortly before his 80th birthday, as archpriest of a basilica.

His stature, achieved after years of ecclesiastical leadership, made his downfall particularly painful for the faithful who continued to love the church while recognizing that it had grievously erred.

An itinerant childhood

Bernard Francis Law was born on Nov. 4, 1931, in Torreón, Mexico. His father, a pilot, was Catholic; his mother was Presbyterian before converting to her husband’s faith.

As a youth, Cardinal Law made frequent moves with his parents, including to Colombia, Panama and the Virgin Islands. In St. Thomas, he was elected president of his mostly black senior class, according to a biographical sketch in the book “Boston’s Cardinal: Bernard Law, the Man and His Witness” (2002).

He studied medieval history at Harvard University, from which he graduated in 1953. After completing his religious training at St. Joseph Seminary in Louisiana and the Pontifical College Josephinum in Ohio, he was ordained in 1961.

His first assignment was in the Natchez-Jackson Diocese in Mississippi. Amid boiling racial hatred, the young priest helped found and then led an interfaith council on human relations. A Unitarian minister who served with him was shot, according to the biographical sketch, and the home of a rabbi was bombed. Cardinal Law reportedly received death threats.

Later, in Washington, he joined the organization now known as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and led a committee on interreligious understanding. He served as bishop of Springfield-Cape Girardeau in Missouri before succeeding Humberto Medeiros as archbishop of Boston’s 2 million Catholics in 1984. The next year, he was elevated to cardinal, a prince of the church.

In Boston, Cardinal Law was credited with helping to ease race relations during the divisive court-ordered busing for public schools. He urged voters to make abortion, which the Catholic Church opposes, “the critical issue” in elections. Politically well-connected, he spoke as frequently as once a month with George H.W. Bush during his presidency, the Globe reported.

In international affairs, Cardinal Law became a visible envoy for the church. He met with Cuban leader Fidel Castro eight years before John Paul’s historic visit to the communist country in 1998, traveled to Vietnam, and led humanitarian relief efforts after natural disasters in Latin America.

In 2002, as the sexual-abuse scandal intensified, The Washington Post interviewed Thomas H. O’Connor, a historian at Boston College who had followed Cardinal Law’s career. Reflecting on his accomplishments, O’Connor paraphrased a line from Shakespeare’s tragedy “Julius Caesar.”

“There’s going to be a lot of good,” the historian said, “interred with his bones.”

‘Betraying the sacred trust’

Cardinal Law’s public response to sexual abuse within the clergy could be traced at least to 1992, when he was confronted by claims that a former Massachusetts priest, James R. Porter, had molested dozens of children in the 1960s. Cardinal Law decried “the tragedy of a priest betraying the sacred trust of priestly service” but described abusive clergy as “the rare exception.”

In 1993, Porter was sentenced to 18 to 20 years in prison. Three years later, a Waltham, Mass., woman filed the first in what would be a raft of lawsuits against another priest — Geoghan — whom she said had abused her three sons.

Through a lawyer, Cardinal Law admitted that, as archbishop in September 1984, he was advised of accusations that Geoghan had molested seven boys. Geoghan nonetheless was transferred to another parish, where he was permitted to lead altar boys. Reports of abuse continued.

“It is most heartening to know that things have gone well for you and that you are ready to resume your efforts with a renewed zeal and enthusiasm,” Cardinal Law wrote to Geoghan in 1989, as reported by the Globe, after moving the priest to his new parish. Church records showed that Geoghan had been medically cleared for work.

In 1998, under Cardinal Law’s leadership and with John Paul’s approval, Geoghan was defrocked. He was strangled in 2003 by a fellow inmate at a correctional facility in Massachusetts, where he was serving a prison sentence for fondling a boy at a pool.

The Boston Archdiocese reached settlements with many of Geoghan’s reported victims. Such settlements, made in dioceses across the United States, were estimated to have cost the church more than $2 billion.

In January 2002, Cardinal Law issued a public apology for his reassignment of Geoghan. In the same announcement — belatedly, to many critics — he said that priests would be required to notify law enforcement authorities of alleged sexual abuse.

In the ensuing months, Cardinal Law came under growing pressure to resign. His public expressions of remorse culminated with his remarks in November 2002, at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston, where he said that “the forgiving love of God gives me the courage to beg forgiveness of those who have suffered because of what I did.”

He acknowledged the “devastating effects of this horrible sin” — substance abuse, depression, in some cases suicide — and sought to assuage the sense of shame many victims suffer by assuring them that the perpetrators were to blame. He urged anyone living “with the awful secret of sexual abuse by clergy or by anyone else to come forward so that you may begin to experience healing.”

“No one is helped by keeping such things secret,” he said. “The secret of sexual abuse needs to be brought out of the darkness and into the healing light of Jesus Christ.”

His resignation came the following month. Cardinal Law later was a chaplain at the Sisters of Mercy of Alma convent in Clinton, Md., and maintained posts on Vatican committees, including the one that nominates bishops.

He assumed his post at the papal basilica of Saint Mary Major in 2004. After John Paul’s death in the next year, Cardinal Law participated in the conclave that selected Joseph Ratzinger, later Benedict XVI, as the new pope.

Cardinal Law had no known immediate survivors.

In his apology at the Boston cathedral, he reflected on the priests whom he had known in his youth, and who had made an enduring impact on his life.

“They represented all that was good to me,” said Cardinal Law. “Like countless others, I placed great trust in them.”