Cardinal Mahony: Couldn’t Happen to a Nicer Guy

In the summer of 1945, following a three-week trial, a jury convicted Maréchal Philippe Pétain of treason and sentenced him to death. The verdict excited controversy. Though, in four years as France’s chief of state, he had created a generally repressive regime and collaborated with Hitler, there was plenty to be said in Pétain’s favor. During the First World War, he had led French forces in resisting the Germans at Verdun. In the war that followed, he justified seeking peace with Germany with a kind of patriotic realism. The duty of the government, Pétain argued, was not to flee to England, but “to remain in the country, or it could not longer be regarded as the government.”

In Cardinal Roger Mahony’s record as Los Angeles archbishop, it’s possible to see a broadly comparable mixture of good and evil, prescience and stupidity. On the credit side, Mahony presided over the archdiocese in the years when it doubled in size, becoming the largest in the nation. He blazed a trail in reaching out to Latinos, and he did it in a spirit of charity — Rocco Palmo has called the relationship a “love story.”

But Mahony’s record on curbing priestly sex abuse is abysmal. As memos exchanged by the future cardinal and Msgr. Thomas Curry reveal, Mahony effectively shielded three abusive priests from civil authorities. Each of the three priests faced multiple allegations from victims as young as 12. Mahony recognized that some of those allegations amounted to first-degree felonies. Yet when Curry’s plans to keep them out of the courts (and out of the papers) showed an ingenuity that verged on cunning, Mahony approved. After Fr. Michael Baker admitted privately to abusing young boys, Mahony wrote of Curry’s advice, that the information be concealed from psychiatrists, “sounds good — please proceed!”

Okay, maybe it’s not as bad as censoring the press, unleashing paramilitary police on resistance fighters, stripping Jews of their civil rights, or packing a division of volunteers off to serve in the Wehrmacht. But, evil for evil, it’s about as close as any American prelate of the late 20th century could hope to come.

Pétain refused to speak in court, but ever since his apologists, and even Charles De Gaulle, have argued that he was the victim of a show trial. This seems to be Mahony’s verdict on himself. After his successor, Archbishop José Gomez, publicly announced his relief from any remaining public and administrative duties, Mahony sprang to his own defense. On his blog, he posted a letter he’d written Gomez privately, pointing out that he’d assumed his job with neither formal training nor firm guidelines in handling predators. Moreover, Mahony said, Gomez must have known his record perfectly well before the memos went public. He didn’t come right out and accuse Gomez of playing to the galleries, but the implication is impossible to miss.

Mahony may not be altogether wrong here. The Mahony-Curry memos date back to the late 1980s, but it’s still a little hard to imagine how Gomez, who has served in the archdiocese since 2010, could have been wholly unaware of them. In any case, the public rebuke is unprecedented. Other prelates who protected or enabled priests were able to leave office with bands playing and colors flying. After resigning his position as archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law moved to Rome, where he was created archpriest of Santa Maria Maggiore. Archbishop Rembert Weakland retired from his post at Milwaukee to literal applause, and later published a well-received memoir. Though convicted by a jury of failing to inform police that one of his priests was collecting child pornography on his laptop, Robert Finn continues to reign as bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph. Just recently, he issued a statement condemning National Catholic Reporter, the paper that covered his trial most diligently — surely a sign of confidence in his own position.

It would have been better, of course, for every negligent hierarch to receive the same treatment Gomez showed Mahony, but unfortunately, it’s a bit late for that. Whether this rough handling will send a message, as they say, to reigning bishops is unclear. With Finn still sitting pretty and Philadelphia archbishop Charles Chaput unusually diplomatic regarding his predecessors, Cardinals Bevilacqua and Rigali, it would be an ambiguous message at best. “Report abusive priests to the proper authorities promptly, especially if you think there’s a good chance your successor will slap you for not doing it” isn’t necessarily the kind of thing that moves men’s souls.

But, like the liberated France of 1945, the mismanaged American Church of 2013 is bruised and smarting. It can make no progress toward re-investing its trust in authority without catharsis, and there can be no catharsis unless somebody swings, and that somebody may as well be Mahony. Even if Gomez’ outrage was less than perfectly spontaneous, even if his restrictions on Mahony, who remains a priest in good standing, were mainly symbolic, they’re still like that proverbial 100,000 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean — a good start.

Los Angeles County prosecutors think it “unlikely” that statutes of limitations will permit them to prosecute Mahony for any wrongdoing. Pétain also escaped the worst-case scenario; owing to the Maréchal’s extremely advanced age and past heroism, De Gaulle commuted his sentence to life imprisonment. But De Gaulle knew the cathartic value of justice. After the war, when an air force officer named Bastien-Thiry was convicted of conniving in a plot to asssassinate him, the president refused pleas for clemency and allowed his execution to proceed. “The French need martyrs,” De Gaulle explained. “I gave them Bastien-Thiry…he deserves [the honor].”

If Mahony thinks himself ill-used, he can always console himself that the Church needs martyrs, too.

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