Finally, LAT on Mahony’s ‘mixed legacy’

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.

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  • Gabe, CA

    Wow! What an excuse!! “He inherited a situation that nobody had predicted.” Wasn’t his job as a leader to handle situations that no one can predict? And did he do the best that he could? Maybe one could say in the beginning he wasn’t sure what to do about the sexually predatory priests in his archdiocese, but as time went on, he should have figured it out. At what point did he decide that priests’ and the church’s reputation was more important than the lives of innocent children and vulnerable adults? Does he not know the difference between right and wrong? He has had plenty of years to undo his wrongdoings, but instead, he hides behind expensive lawyers and excuses such as forgetfullness.

  • Chris B

    “Gorgeous” cathedral? No accounting for taste, I s’pose. And as with Mahony’s legacy it very much depends on the eye of the beholder. In addition to his handling of the abuse scandal ( which all can deplore, but in fairness there are few members of the hierarchy from that era with totally clean hands),Mahony and the LA Archdiocese was for many more traditional Catholics, a poster child for all that was and is wrong with the post-concilar Church.

  • MikeL

    I think an interesting component of any retrospective on Mahony’s time and the abuse scandal would be a comparison of his situation and Cardinal Law’s in Boston. From my perspective, it seems like the outlines of parameters of the scandal and their approaches were similar, but the approach of the media and the subsequent public reaction were much different.

    If I had to guess, I’d say these two very different reactions had a great deal to do with the perceived liberal/conservative views of Mahony and Law. I may be wrong, but I think it would make an interesting analysis.

  • Martha

    “building the gorgeous Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels”

    Opinions differ on the “gorgeous” bit, Brad. Well, at least my opinion :-)

    (Seriously, somebody thought Mahony was papabile? I can’t see that at all!)

  • C. Wingate

    One hates to be picky but Wikipedia shows the Taj Mahony as some twenty metres longer than St. Pat’s, not to mention that the two biggest Episcopal cathedrals in the country are a lot bigger. Also maybe it’s just me but I would say the architectural jury is still out on this building, or rather that there are two if not three radically disagreeing opinions of it, including one party that who hold it up as the embodiment of everything that is wrong with contemporary American RC taste. That section of the article is a bit of a whitewash.

  • MikeL

    “building the gorgeous Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels”

    I’ve only seen some photos of the cathedral, but from what I can see, it’s pretty ugly (but – this did give me a chance to pair “pretty” and “ugly” in a sentence).

  • joye

    Hahaha, the comments were exactly what I was expecting to see. Mr. Greenberg clearly isn’t familiar with the strong negative opinions many hold about the LA Cathedral (I see that “Taj Mahony” has already made an appearance), or he would never have skimmed over it in such a way.

    Personally, I was thinking that “gorgeous” needed a Wikipedia [dubious--citation needed] after it, and I am generally a fan of modern and postmodern art and architecture.

    To that end, the article does a poor job of painting the situation on the ground, by basically implying that the only criticism of the cathedral was based on its cost and that the critics have shut up now. To the extent that they have, it’s because it’s a fait accompli, not because they like the building. I didn’t even convert to the Church until 2006, four years after the cathedral opened, and I heard the phrase “Taj Mahony” spoken with flippancy in many places.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    I should have qualified “gorgeous” as my opinion. I’m a fan. But, to be sure, the Cathedral controversy long pre-dated my days as a religion reporter, and I’m not too familiar with the general perception in the Catholic community.

    As for the comparison to Bernard Law, this is an important one that I consistently heard from victims and their attorneys and journalists when I was covering the scandal. The circumstances were similar, but the consequences for the two men were quite different. How as Mahony able to dodge that bullet? Was it the result of less media attention? Was it an East Coast bias? Was it just a general exhaustion with the clergy sex abuse scandal when it really exploded around Mahony?

  • Susan

    (Prejudices – I am a Roman Catholic; lived in LA for many years; now in the Seattle area.)

    In my opinion, Cardinal Mahoney did not handle the priest scandal well at all. I am more familiar with what was going on in the seminaries. Many men dropped out of the seminaries … shocked to their core at what was going on. Others gutted through places like St. John. Some seminarians tell me there is still much to clean up, and they tell me that the Mahoney was no help at all. He (as many other bishops) have much to answer for.

    And the Cathedral (sigh). So much wrong with it but it will be there for the foreseeable future. The sad thing is that there are wonderful Catholic architects out there who could have done a superb job.

  • Jay

    Not the “last” article on Mahony: presumably there is a prewritten obit that was started by one of the religion reporters.

    BTW, +1 for the “ugly” cathedral faction.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    I wouldn’t suspect that’s something in the can this early for a man who hasn’t had health issues and is only this weekend turning 75. Hopefully the Times will still have a religion reporter when Mahony’s time on earth grows nigh.

  • Ira Rifkin


    For the Times not to have some sort of obit already in the can would be terribly short-sighted. You simply don’t want to get caught on deadline having to write an obit from scratch for an individual of Mahony’s influence and fame in your circulation area. Healthy 75-year-olds die suddenly every day for lots of reasons.

    However, given the terrible shape the Times is in these days I would not be surprised if its been more than a few years since anyone had the time to make sure Mahony’s obit is current.

    I was the LA Daily News religion writer when Mahony came on the scene. I remember putting together a basic obit very early in his tenure. I’m sure John Dart and/or Russell Chandler were tasked with doing the same at the Times, where they both handled the religion beat when Mahony came to LA.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    Maybe. However, when I was at the LA Daily News, John Wooden was already well into his 90s and I was told there was no obit ready to go.

  • Ira Rifkin

    John Wooden, LA basketball icon, in his 90s and no obit ready. I call that editors not doing their job.

  • Dan

    The article is remarkable for its completely secular orientation and tone-deafness to Catholic concerns. It for example credits the increase in lay participation, particularly lay women, as an “achievement”; according to the article, this made the Church more “inclusive” and was an effective way of dealing with the shortage of priests. From the Catholic perspective, however, excessive reliance on the laity, particularly as Eucharistic ministers, is part of a failure – a failure to increase vocations (the Archdiocese of Los Angeles has one of the lowest per-capita vocation rates of all U.S. dioceses). Also, lack of “inclusiveness” (a very unCatholic term with relativistic overtones) is not now and never has been seen as a problem within the Church; we call her the “Catholic Church” because she is catholic. The Church always has been catholic. Cardinal Mahoney cannot be credited with making her more so. Further, as Chris B alludes to above, among committed Catholics Cardinal Mahoney had the reputation of being the living example of everything that is wrong with the post-conciliar Church (and in particular for allowing debasement of the liturgy). The article does not even mention this reputation.

    What the article gives us, in short, is a summary of Cardinal Mahoney’s legacy among secular liberals, with no regard to his legacy among committed Catholics.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    An interesting perspective, Dan. Now that you’ve mentioned it, that really does seem to be remiss here. In all honesty, I’ve criticized so many articles by this religion reporter for, as you say, their “tone-deafness” on religious issues that I think I was a bit more forgiving of omissions in this story than I would have been in critiquing this article if it had been written by someone with a better track record.

  • Bern

    By all means, let’s compare the media coverage of Law and Mahony–don’t forget the outcomes for the two cardinals. The “conservative” Law got himself a nice job in Rome, which only reluctantly accepted his resignation. The “liberal” Mahony’s 75th birthday has been on the countdown calendar for years, and for sure he’s not going to Rome. The similarities are, neither of the two went to jail.

  • Sabrina Vourvoulias

    He is, without question, one of the heroes of Latino Catholics. And there aren’t many of them, unfortunately, for a Church that is now more than 50% Latino.