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In Rome's shadow

Boston's former archbishop finds a new role in Eternal City

ROME -- In the Eternal City, where two millenniums of Catholic triumphs and tragedies are etched into underground caverns and soaring churches, Cardinal Bernard F. Law is quietly reclaiming a portion of the influence and prestige he once enjoyed as archbishop of Boston.

He is playing an active role in governing the world's largest religious body, serving on an unusually high number of Vatican congregations charged with, among other things, the appointment of bishops and the oversight of priests around the world.

He is the titular head of two significant churches here: the Basilica of St. Mary Major, one of the four patriarchal basilicas of the Catholic Church, and Santa Susanna, an ancient parish now dedicated to serving Americans in Rome.

He is seen about town with some frequency, patronizing some of the same restaurants he preferred when Rome was just a place he visited, and sitting in the front row at important Vatican events.

Although in Boston, his role in the clergy sexual abuse scandal made it difficult for him to appear in public without being shadowed by reporters and protesters, his public presence causes barely a ripple in Rome. Here he is overshadowed within the church by dozens of other red-robed cardinals and a beloved pope, in society by more pressing domestic scandals and controversies, and on the streets not only by ancient ruins and Renaissance art, but by modern thrills like the cast and crew of ''Oceans 12," a motion picture now in production in the city's streets.

This past week, Law celebrated Mass at both of his churches, on Sunday in English at Santa Susanna, the parish where he has served as cardinal-priest since 1985, and on Tuesday in Latin and Italian at St. Mary Major, the basilica where he was named archpriest little more than a month ago. At both Masses, he was attended by his former secretary in Boston, Monsignor Paul B. McInerny, who is the director of Boston Catholic Television.

In Rome, church activists on both the left and right are unhappy with the pope's decision to appoint Law to head a basilica, even though the position is more ceremonial than influential.

''The maneuver is always the same: Move the priest or bishop who has committed the political or moral infraction to another church, and in this manner you preserve the dignity of clergyman and the church," said Luigi De Paoli, spokesman for the Italian association Noi Siamo Chiesa (We are the Church), a liberal Catholic lay movement that advocates for church reform. De Paoli said he believes the Vatican will ultimately have to apologize for giving Law the new post, as it has had to apologize for other decisions in the past.

''The Vatican is out of touch with modernity, where it is no longer acceptable to hide the problem and pretend it has been resolved," he said.

Conservative Catholics have several times protested outside the basilica -- most recently on Friday -- objecting to Law's selection as archpriest.

''This is a city that lives according to certain basic Christian values, and we don't think it's right to have a priest who defended criminals, and they were truly criminals who were guilty of atrocious acts, working here," said Roberto Bevilacqua, regional coordinator for the far-right political party Fiamma Tricolore. ''There are many people who are upset and have joined our cause -- local residents, parishioners, Catholics who do not accept the fact that Law defended priests guilty of such horrific crimes. We will continue this fight for as long as necessary."

At the Mass Law celebrated Tuesday, in honor of the feast day of Saints Peter and Paul, a handful of Americans recognized Law, but many other visitors did not, including a couple from Canada. The basilica is an important pilgrimage site for Catholic tourists -- the current structure dates to the fifth century, has a striking golden coffered ceiling, and is packed with mosaics depicting biblical scenes.

Jim Ferlmann of Naperville, Ill., said at first he knew the cardinal in the golden miter looked familiar, but he wasn't sure why.

''Most people here probably don't know his history, so if they are willing to have him as their shepherd, then fine," Ferlmann said. ''But I'd feel very uncomfortable coming to Mass knowing that he is here."

Dawn Guarino, 44, of Shrewsbury, Mass., said some members of her tour group, all from the Worcester Diocese, decided not to visit St. Mary Major because ''it would have been hard for them to watch him do Mass." She attended the Tuesday Mass because she wanted to see the important basilica, but said ''it's ironic he's here in such a high position."

Some Americans living in Rome are unhappy as well. Patricia Thomas, who grew up in Newton, said she was not pleased with Law's role at Santa Susanna, the church where her son goes for religious education.

''When he resigned, I think we all knew the Vatican wasn't going to leave him on the street -- they don't do that to cardinals -- but we hoped that the Vatican would kick him upstairs, upstairs being a lonely room hidden somewhere deep inside the Vatican," Thomas said. ''One Sunday morning when I took my son to Mass and found that Cardinal Law was presiding, I was extremely uncomfortable. I thought about leaving, but did not. I did tell my son that man had been a cardinal in Boston for many years and that I did not like him for some things he had done. I left it at that. It also bothers me that he gets to vote for the next pope, but that is another issue."

On the street, reaction is calmer. An online Roman news site,, ran a story with an excited headline, ''He covered up for the pedophile priests? Now we're expecting him," but a text in which neighbors and passersby told a reporter they were willing to give Law a chance. ''We're waiting to get to know him and in any case he wasn't directly involved in the scandal," said a souvenir vendor outside the basilica.

And church officials are quite sympathetic to Law's plight.

''There is a basic consensus on two points -- that Law made mistakes, and that those mistakes were grossly exaggerated so that he was unfairly made to bear the weight of the entire scandal on his shoulders," said John L. Allen Jr., Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. ''Most Vatican officials respect him as bright, well-connected, and someone who knows the Catholic world."

Law did not respond to a written request for an interview, and after the Tuesday Mass declined to speak to a reporter. During the Mass, he briefly acknowledged English- and Spanish-speaking visitors in attendance, thanked Bishop Daniel A. Hart, the retired bishop of Norwich, Conn., who assisted at the Mass, and praised the basilica's musical singers as ''the finest choir in Rome."

Law is paid the same salary granted other Vatican cardinals -- 4,000 Euros a month, which under the current exchange rate is about $4,900, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls told the National Catholic Reporter. The newspaper said that amount must cover Law's expenses as well as the cost of a car and driver and his household staff.

Law is also entitled to an apartment in the basilica complex, where a number of church officials live, but it is not clear whether he has moved in.

An archdiocesan spokesman said last week that the church was unable to say whether Law is still receiving any salary or benefits from the Archdiocese of Boston.

Globe correspondent Alexandra Salomon contributed to this report. Michael Paulson can be reached at

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