As I mentioned Tuesday night, I had been waiting 12 months for the Los Angeles Times to write the postscript on Cardinal Roger Mahony’s troubled 25-year tenure atop the largest Roman Catholic diocese in the country.
Here it is, appearing during Mahony’s last week on the job. And it’s pretty good.
Opening with the great detail that Mahony was once the leading American candidate to replace Pope John Paul II (a darkhorse, but still on Vatican watchers’ radars), it then delivers this most-apt nut:
A lot had happened in the intervening decade.
Mahony, who retires in the coming week as head of the Los Angeles Archdiocese, leaves a legacy that church historians will puzzle over for years. Once a shining star — perhaps the shining star — of the American church, his reputation suffered from his handling of a devastating sexual abuse scandal that shattered the lives and trust of many Catholics and led to the largest civil settlement by any archdiocese, a staggering $660million.
Yet such were Mahony’s strengths that he remains respected, even beloved, by many in his flock who see him as fiercely devoted to social justice, willing to fight for progressive reforms in the church and motivated by a lifelong passion for easing the burdens faced by Latino immigrants. He also kept the archdiocese from financial collapse after the sex abuse settlement, an achievement that required tough and sometimes unpopular decisions.
This set the tone for a fair, although maybe a bit reserved, article exploring Mahony’s legacy, which the Times’ characterized as “mixed.”
That’s a bit oversimplified. More accurate, I think, would be to say his legacy was overwhelmed by his handling of pedophile priests. Though I take exception to saying Mahony may have been a victim of circumstances — “Whether through bad luck, bad timing or bad judgment” — LAT religion reporter Mitchell Landsberg generally strikes the right note here.
That’s no small acknowledgement.
Landsberg’s story is broken into three primary sections, which happen to be the three major issues that determine Mahony’s legacy: working for social justice, building the gorgeous Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels and his failings at protecting his flock from pedophiles priests.
These sections are informative, but they’re a bit underdeveloped. That’s likely a result of the fact that this story is only 1,800 words. Nowadays, that’s actually a pretty long story for the Times; five years ago this article would have been about twice as long.
Landsberg concludes what may very well be the last story a Times religion reporter writes about Mahony — let’s hope the clergy abuse revelations are exhausted — with a very poignant quote from former Angeleno leader who still commands a lot of respect:
“He inherited a situation that nobody had predicted,” said former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a confidant throughout Mahony’s tenure.
“He did as good a job as you can do … but obviously people are going to remember him more for that, which is sad.”
Great quote. It doesn’t underplay Mahony’s failings but it puts them in context of repeated mistakes made by Catholic bishops before the turn of the century. And it ends on an appropriately melancholy and mixed sentiment.