Cardinal Bernard Law, the disgraced former archbishop of Boston whose failures to stop child molesters in the priesthood sparked the worst crisis in American Catholicism, has died at age 86, a church official said Tuesday. 

Law had been sick and was recently hospitalized in Rome.

Law was once one of the most important leaders in the U.S. church. He broadly influenced Vatican appointments to American dioceses, helped set priorities for the nation's bishops and was favoured by Pope John Paul II.

But in January 2002, the Boston Globe began a series of reports that used church records to reveal that Law had transferred abusive clergy among parish assignments for years without alerting parents or police. Within months, Catholics around the country demanded to know whether their bishops had done the same.

Law tried to manage the mushrooming scandal in his own archdiocese by first refusing to comment, then apologizing and promising reform. But thousands more church records were released describing new cases of how Law and others expressed more care for accused priests than for victims. Amid a groundswell against the cardinal, including rare public rebukes from some of his own priests, Law asked to resign and the pope said yes.

"It is my fervent prayer that this action may help the archdiocese of Boston to experience the healing, reconciliation and unity which are so desperately needed," Law said when he stepped down as head of the Boston archdiocese in December of that year. "To all those who have suffered from my shortcomings and mistakes, I both apologize and from them beg forgiveness."

Fall from grace

In the notorious case that started the 2002 crisis, as recounted in the Oscar-winning film Spotlight, the Globe reported that Law and two of his predecessors as Boston archbishop had transferred former priest John Geoghan among parish assignments despite knowing he molested children. More than 130 people eventually came forward to say Geoghan abused them. The archdiocese paid $10 million US in settlements with 86 of his victims and their relatives as Law was clinging to his job. It was nowhere near enough to ease the growing anger.

As the leader of the archdiocese at the epicentre for the scandal, Law remained throughout his life a symbol of the church's widespread failures to protect children.

Since 1950, more than 6,500, or about six per cent of U.S. priests, have been accused of molesting children, and the American church has paid more than $3 billion US in settlements to victims, according to studies commissioned by the U.S. bishops and media reports.

Vatican Pope

Pope Benedict XVI greets U.S. cardinal Bernard Law after his weekly general audience in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican on Feb. 13, 2013. (Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press)

Still, Law retained some support in the Vatican. In 2004, he was appointed archpriest of the Basilica of St. Mary Major, one of four principal basilicas in Rome. When John Paul died the next year, Law was among bishops who presided at a memorial Mass for the pontiff in St. Peter's Basilica. Law also continued for several years to serve in Vatican dicasteries, or policy-making committees, including the Congregation for Bishops, which recommends appointments to the pope. Advocates for victims saw the posts as a sign of favour for Law by church officials unrepentant about abused children.

And even 15 years after the scandal broke in Boston, the question of holding bishops accountable for their failures to protect children remains a pressing issue for the church. Pope Francis had promised to go after these negligent bishops, but he backed off a proposed Vatican tribunal to prosecute them and opted instead to use existing measures, leading survivors to question his commitment to the task.

Pope Francis will preside over funeral rites for Law at 9:30 a.m. ET on Thursday in St. Peter's Basilica, an honour accorded to all Rome-based cardinals.

He also sent a telegram of condolences Wednesday to the dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Angelo Sodano. The letter makes no mention of Law's role as the former archbishop of Boston. Rather, Francis's telegram refers to Law's final position as archpriest of the St. Mary Major basilica in Rome.

In it, Francis said: "I raise prayers for the repose of his soul, that the Lord, God who is rich in mercy, may welcome him in His eternal peace, and I send my apostolic blessing to those who share in mourning the passing of the cardinal."

Law's successor as archbishop, Cardinal Sean O'Malley, said it was a "sad reality" that Law's legacy will forever be tied to the abuse scandal since he led the Boston archdiocese at a time "when the church seriously failed" in its job to care for its flock and protect children.

"I offer my sincere apologies for the harm they suffered, my continued prayers and my promise that the archdiocese will support them in their effort to achieve healing," O'Malley said in a statement.

'Good riddance to bad rubbish'

Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston lawyer who has represented dozens of people who say they were sexually abused by priests, said Law's death has reopened old wounds.

"Many victims are reminded of the pain of being sexually abused upon hearing of Cardinal Law passing away," Garabedian said. "Cardinal Law turned his back on innocent children and allowed them to be sexually abused and then received a promotion in Rome."

Alexa MacPherson, who says she was a victim of clergy sex abuse for six years as a small child, had no words of sorrow at the news of Law's death.

"Good riddance to bad rubbish. I hope the gates of hell are swinging wide to allow him entrance," she told The Associated Press.

"I won't shed a tear for him – I might shed a tear for everyone who's been a victim under him."

'Cardinal Law turned his back on innocent children and allowed them to be sexually abused and then received a promotion in Rome.' - Mitchell Garabedian, lawyer

Law was expected to be buried in Rome, O'Malley said. The location hasn't been disclosed, but Law would be entitled to be buried at St. Mary Major.

Born Nov. 4, 1931, in Torreon, Mexico, Law was the only child of a U.S. Air Force colonel and a mother who was a Presbyterian convert to Catholicism. He was educated throughout North and South America and the Virgin Islands before graduating in 1953 from Harvard University. He was ordained in 1961 and campaigned for civil rights in Mississippi, sometimes travelling in the trunks of cars for safety

He became archbishop of Boston in 1984, a prominent appointment to the country's fourth-largest diocese. Law was a prominent voice in Massachusetts, criticized pro-choice politicians.

Within the church, he was devoted to building Catholic-Jewish relations, including leading a delegation of Jewish and other Massachusetts leaders in a 1986 visit to the Auschwitz death camp in Poland. He worked closely with church leaders in Latin America, acting as an unofficial envoy of the pope to Cuba and revolutionary leader Fidel Castro.

However, Law's legacy has been overshadowed by the scandal.

As he announced he would leave for the Vatican, Law asked Boston Catholics, "Please keep me in your prayers."