He's close to the Bush family, yet talks on occasion with Fidel Castro. He has supported homes for AIDS patients in neighborhoods that didn't want them. He once faced death threats for his civil rights stand in segregated Mississippi but has prevented those who want women in the priesthood from meeting on church property.
Over the years, Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law has moved easily between the halls of power in the Roman Catholic church and the poorest of US parishes.
Now, Cardinal Law finds himself at the center of a clergy sex-abuse scandal that has not only weakened the moral authority of clerics but, according to some, also threatens to shake the hierarchical underpinnings of the church. Increasingly, even supporters are questioning his ability to restore trust.
Calls for Law's resignation from some prominent Catholics in Boston and elsewhere are reaching a new crescendo over his alleged negligence in handling sex-abuse cases. How Law responds to the growing demand for reform and greater openness may well determine the outcome of what, by most accounts, has been an illustrious career.
Cardinal Law, a staunch advocate for Pope John Paul II and the most senior prelate in the United States, clearly wants to be part of the solution, vowing to rectify his diocese's policies and point the way for the church to fully address the issues relating to sexual abuse of minors.
Indeed, his refusal to pass the blame and his quick revision of policies suggest to some that Law should stay on the job.
"He's one of the most compassionate and caring men I've ever known," says Jack Shaughnessy Sr., chairman of Shaughnessy & Ahern Co., who serves on the board of several Roman Catholic charities. "I would say his leadership is indispensable to the healing."
Others question whether he can regain his credibility or press within the church for the kind of reforms many are now seeking.
"I hear people in the pews solidly mainstream Catholics calling for married men to be ordained, and women, and for a more participatory church," says Jan Leary, a member of the Catholic reform movement, Call To Action.
Some critics argue the bishop must resign, accepting responsibility for deeply wounding the faithful he sought to serve.
This is not the first time Law has been under great pressure. He took up his first parish assignment in Mississippi in 1961 amid the turmoil of the civil rights movement.
"He became a superstar immediately in the Vicksburg parish, and was soon called to Jackson to edit the diocesan newspaper," says George Evans, a Jackson attorney. Law received death threats for the paper's civil rights stance and his efforts to convene religious leaders of all faiths and races in a "committee of concern" during a summer of 40 church burnings.
Despite persistent hostility, the charismatic young cleric succeeded in moving older religious leaders of several faiths in a new direction, says Mr. Evans, who was an intern at the paper.
"He's a man of deep spirituality," says the Rev. Patrick Farrell, pastor of St. Peter's Cathedral in Jackson, Miss., and a life-long friend. "After graduating from Harvard with a history major, he could have been anything he wanted; but he chose the church, and then the poorest diocese in the US to begin his ministry."
Born in Mexico to a US Army colonel and a concert pianist, Law grew up in Latin America and the US Virgin Islands, where he attended school with mostly black students and teachers. During high school there, he had what he calls his conversion experience.
Law said that gave him a perspective on church as the body of Christ. "I know that I do not define the church," he told a meeting of lay leaders. "We are the church clergy and laity, men and women, children, rich and poor, people of all ethnic and economic backgrounds."
Friends say that he has lived that vision of inclusion, reaching out in pastoral work within the church and beyond.
Mr. Evans says the cleric often invited him to the hospital in Mississippi to visit people: "He loved to do that, and I prayed for more people I didn't know!"
When Law was bishop of Springfield-Cape Girardeau diocese in Missouri in the 1970s, he set up a center for Vietnamese refugees. "He's become quite a figure for Vietnamese in this country," says the Rev. Raymond Helmick, a teacher at Boston College, noting that the center became a national model.
Law's interfaith commitment has persisted from the early years in Jackson, through an appointment as executive secretary of the US bishops committee for ecumenical and interreligious affairs, to his recent gathering of religious leaders to meet with President Bush at the White House in the aftermath of Sept. 11.
"He has a great ability to grasp differences and engage on a basis of respect," Father Farrell says. "He's been quite extraordinary in his outreach to the Jewish community," says Lawrence Lowenthal, of Boston's American Jewish Committee.
Not all his flock have felt that conciliatory touch. Committed to strict conformity to the pope's teachings, Law has acted forcefully against those who step out of line. Two years ago, Massachusetts Women-Church, a group of mothers and grandmothers seeking to counter sexism in the church, held a demonstration at the cathedral in support of women's ordination. According to Ms. Leary, Law approached and shouted that they were in violation of their faith. He sent out a memo saying the group was not to be allowed to meet on any Catholic property.
The group also believes that Law's hardline positions contributed to the eviction of Sister Jeannette Normandin, an elderly nun with years of service to the poor, after she participated in a baptism of two infants, a duty reserved for priests.
Some Catholics say they're astonished to see how church leaders coddled abusive priests even as those with policy differences were treated harshly. They have also questioned how the desire to prevent scandal could have overridden the need to protect children.
When Law said he would not resign, he explained that a bishop was not like a politician or CEO.
"But in fact, he acts like a CEO when he follows legal strategies instead of his pastoral heart," says Eugene Kennedy, professor emeritus at Loyola University. "He is a very honorable man ... but he followed the advice of lawyers and insurers, as many bishops have."
The plum post of archbishop of Boston was given to Law in 1984; he was made cardinal a year later.
Ray Flynn, who became Boston's mayor at the same time, insists "one colossal mistake" should not outweigh a life's good work. He credits Law with helping to put "a polarized city, racially divided and in the economic doldrums," back on track with his emphasis on community.
He also came to the mayor's aid when Bostonians opposed facilities in their neighborhoods for AIDs patients and unwed mothers. After he asked priests to hold meetings on the need in local churches, the facilities were built, says Mr. Flynn, who later served as US ambassador to the Vatican.
At the same time, Law's talents and interests have taken him far beyond his diocese, from committee assignments in Rome to responding to disasters in the developing world, to behind-the-scenes diplomacy in sensitive areas like the Middle East and Cuba, Father Helmick says.
During a trip to Cuba with church leaders several years ago, Law caught the attention of Fidel Castro, and they've had serious conversations ever since, with the cardinal becoming a player in US policy discussions, and key to preparing for the pope's trip to Havana.
But today, these forays onto the world stage aren't winning plaudits back home, where some feel they've distracted him from local needs . Even meetings with priests tended to focus on his itinerary.
Discouraged by the lack of opportunity to discuss with Law the problems they face in their work, priests formed a group last summer. Now the expanding group feels responsible to examine the deeper issues raised by the crisis and to articulate in a nonadversarial way what needs to be done, says the Rev. Robert Bullock, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows in Sharon, Mass.
"This [crisis] has nothing to do with faith or Catholicism, but with structures the way we have been as a church, the way authority has been exercised," Father Bullock says.
According to the Rev. Richard McBrien, professor of theology at Notre Dame, Law would likely step down only if he concluded he had lost the support of his priests. On that front, adds Father McBrien, who was recently invited to speak to the priests' group, "the jury is still out." The pope has indicated he will not discipline Law and others who handled cases.
McBrien questions whether Cardinal Law and other loyalist bishops can take the lead on issues now coming to the surface, such as celibacy. Yet he suggests Law could regularly hold open discussions with priests, investigate recruitment and seminaries, and be an advocate for his priests in Rome.
Law has initiated a project to restore trust, which, says the Rev. Christopher Coyne, archdiocese spokesman, aims to reach out more effectively to victims, strengthen policies, and "make sure more laity and clergy are involved in decisionmaking processes."
"He must do something radical the trust is so fractured," Bullock says. "He needs to go parish to parish, Sunday after Sunday, not with his agenda but just to listen. Those great pastoral skills need to be emphasized. If he doesn't do that, the trust is not going to be rebuilt."