LATimes asks some of the crucial Cardinal Mahony questions

If you were going to design a Catholic cardinal (as opposed to an Episcopal Church bishop) who would please the powers that be at The Los Angeles Times, that man would have to look a whole lot like Cardinal Roger Mahony.

Obviously, Mahony never tossed out the basic doctrines of the Catholic faith. However, he was also never anxious to step on the toes of liberal Catholics who leaned in that direction. Meanwhile, he was one of the princes of the church that doctrinally conservative (and politically conservative) Catholics most loved to hate and it was easy to see that the cardinal felt the same way about them.

Cardinal Mahony took over in 1985 and his progressive Catholic resume grew year after year. He was a strong voice on Latino issues and immigration. After the Los Angeles riots, he was the voice of moral authority seeking peace and economic justice. He was one of the first people Al Gore would see when he hit town to talk about the environment. He spoke out early and often on the death penalty, labor conditions and nuclear disarmament. He was the driving force behind the massive, postmodern, all-but-interfaith Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels that cost $189 million and infuriated liturgical traditionalists (and some on the economic left) who called it the “Taj Mahony.”

As a stunning Times profile put it earlier this month:

Where his predecessors had talked up praying the rosary, Mahony touted his positions on nuclear disarmament and Middle East peace, porn on cable TV and AIDS prevention. No issue seemed outside his purview: When an earthquake struck El Salvador, he cut a $100,000 check. When a 7-year-old went missing in South Pasadena, he wrote her Protestant parents a consoling letter.

Reporters took notes and the influential took heed. The mayor, the governor, business executives and millionaires recognized a rising star and sought his company.

Among the thousands of papers that crossed his desk in September 1986 was a handwritten letter.

“During priests’ retreat … you provided us with an invitation to talk to you about a shadow that some of us might have,” Father Michael Baker wrote. “I would like to take you up on that invitation.”

The note would come to define Mahony’s legacy more than any public stance he took or powerful friend he made.

In other words, there was a bomb ticking during the entire Mahony era. That bomb, of course, was the hidden cost — personal, spiritual and financial — of the scandal rooted in the sexual abuse of children and teens by Catholic clergy under the control of the cardinal.

This massive Times piece does a very, very solid job of charting the sweep of the scandal, using the sickening case of Father Michael Baker as the connecting thread.

The documents in the scandal are outlined and dissected. It’s easy to see why Mahony was such a symbolic figure, in part because his tenure in Los Angeles began precisely at the start of the clergy-abuse-scandal headlines. His career arc, notes the Times, aligns perfectly with the whole scandal era and he was still in power when everything came crashing down, with the release of the massive secret files stashed away by his staff.

Yes, this is the rare piece that actually begins at the beginning, not with the headlines in Boston.

… In 1985, after a molester priest caused a scandal in Louisiana, U.S. bishops held a closed-door session on abuse at their annual conference.

Mahony and other bishops subsequently received a lengthy report warning of the legal and public relations ramifications of abuse and offering tips for dealing with such cases. The report, written by a priest, a psychiatrist and a lawyer, presented the topic in a risk-analysis manner appealing to pragmatists like Mahony.

“Our dependence in the past on Roman Catholic judges and attorneys protecting the Diocese and clerics is GONE,” the report said.

The key lawyer behind that report stressed that it was time for Catholic officials to start leveling with police and reporting accusations against abusers, rather than continuing to hide them. Mahony didn’t do that for many years.

What the Times editors never really ask, in this otherwise gripping feature, is a basic question: Why?

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What do conservatives really think about Cardinal Mahony?

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Yes, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles will be in Rome and will vote in the process to select the next pope. In fact, as part of his social-media campaign against his critics, he plans to tweet whenever and wherever Vatican officials will let him get his hands on a keyboard.

Meanwhile, I am still following, with great interest, the mainstream media’s attempts to describe Mahony’s starring role in the North American Church and, especially, his approach to Catholic life and doctrine, which has for decades made him a figure of some controversy. Click here, for some background information related to this topic, especially the contrasting personalities of Mahony and current Archbishop Jose H. Gomez.

Both supporters and critics of Mahony would agree that, to understand the cardinal’s legacy, one has to wrestle with the history of the giant Religious Education Conference held in Los Angeles. Simply stated, it has long been a symbolic gathering of the progressive leaders of American Catholicism.

Thus, The New York Times dispatched a team to cover this year’s event. Here is some summary material from the resulting report to set the stage:

… This is a defining moment for Archbishop Gomez, who took over from Cardinal Mahony two years ago and is universally described as low-key and quiet, particularly compared with his predecessor. His public rebuke of Cardinal Mahony stunned observers not only for its content, but because the normally mild-mannered archbishop would react so swiftly and dramatically. …

Now, many see this as a first turn in the spotlight for Archbishop Gomez. Cardinal Mahony was known for marching in public rallies, cultivating allies in politics and Hollywood and an almost larger-than-life public persona. By contrast, Archbishop Gomez has only rarely appeared in the press over the last two years. He declined to be interviewed for this article and his staff declined to allow a reporter into the Religious Education Congress without an escort.

Once again, Mahony is described merely in terms of style, while Gomez receives both a style nod and, later on, an accurate theological label.

But here is the passage in this lengthy story that caught my eye:

Many here questioned whether Archbishop Gomez, a theological conservative shaped by his membership in the movement Opus Dei, would move quickly to undo Cardinal Mahony’s more liberal policies, like appointing women and lay people to powerful positions and supporting a robust AIDS ministry. But two years after taking the reins, he is often praised for not acting along ideological lines and has made changes only slowly. Last year, for example, he changed the name of the Office of Justice and Peace to the Office of Life, Justice and Peace. …

For many, Cardinal Mahony has long been a lightning rod in the church. He has deep wells of respect among Latinos, largely because of his role as a champion for immigrants. But traditionalists resent him for his liberal stances.

Now the key to this story is that the Times never appears to have actually interviewed any conservative Catholics in order to learn why they considered Mahony to be a liberal in the church. Instead, as is often the case, readers are given that reference to his “appointing women and lay people to powerful positions and supporting a robust AIDS ministry.”

Well, that’s interesting.

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What are the real differences between Mahony and Gomez?

Guess what? There are significant differences in the theological approaches and doctrinal convictions of Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez and his predecessor, Cardinal Roger Mahony.

So, what are they?

It’s hard to tell, in a fascinating Los Angeles Times story that goes way, way out its way to argue that the differences that really matter are rooted in style and, you guessed it, politics. You can tell that right up front in the content of the magisterial double-deck headline:

Gomez, Mahony are a study in contrasts

Where his predecessor led labor rallies and took up worker rights, earning the nickname ‘Hollywood’ from a pope, Gomez has quietly promoted conservative voices and evangelization.

Trust me, the contents of the story are way better, are way more complex, than that tone-deaf headline. However, I think that headline does show you where the newspaper’s editors were coming from when they approved work on this important news feature story.

The surprising bottom line, however, is that Gomez — whose roots are in Opus Dei — has not turned out to be a rampaging monster out to destroy Mahony’s work as one of the heroes of progressive American Catholicism. Part of this, yes, is a matter of style. Yet the story also hints that the bottom line is clear for those who have eyes to see: Mahony was a political animal who was always seeking the media spotlight; Gomez thinks the best way to achieve Catholic goals is to quietly use Catholic means, year after year after year.

Thus, readers are told, right up top:

In more than two decades leading the Los Angeles Archdiocese, Cardinal Roger Mahony headlined immigration rallies, marched for worker rights and made national news by announcing he would defy a congressional bill he regarded as anti-immigrant.

But the man who replaced him in 2011 — Archbishop Jose Gomez — has shied away from such attention-getting actions. Instead, he plans to take 60 conservative Catholic business leaders on a spiritual pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City this fall in hopes of winning them over on immigration reform.

It’s a distinctly different style from that of Mahony, whom Pope John Paul II nicknamed “Hollywood” for his frequent media appearances.

In other words, both men are highly committed to helping immigrants, a crucial issue in America’s largest Catholic archdiocese — 4.5 million Roman Catholics in 120 cities in Southern California, with Latinos as 70 percent of the faithful. However, Gomez appears to be reaching out to Catholic leaders on these issues through worship and Catholic education, perhaps with few television cameras nearby.

Still, I think that this passage does raise an interesting journalistic question: Did someone in the Gomez camp say that the goal of the trip to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe was “winning” these business leaders “over on immigration reform”? Would Gomez state the goal in political, rather than spiritual terms? It’s hard to tell, since Gomez did not consent to be interviewed, which may or may not tell readers something about his view of the Times.

I found this passage especially interesting:

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So what did Cardinal Mahony believe, really?

The news out of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles is painful and stunning, especially for those who have not been closely following the fine details of the Catholic clergy sexual-abuse scandals over the past quarter century or more.

Actually, the real news was not issued by the archdiocese, but was yanked out into the open air by journalists who kept pushing for decades of vile secrets to be made public. The bottom line: One of the leaders of the progressive wing of the Catholic church in America — Cardinal Roger M. Mahony — discussed with his aides, in memos and behind closed doors, ways to prevent police from learning about specific cases of priests abusing children and teen-agers.

The Los Angeles Times story contains many of the key details about the strategies used by the cardinal and Msgr. Thomas J. Curry, who in the late 1980s was the top archdiocesan expert on sex-abuse cases. Here is some of the crucial info about a key case:

In the confidential letters, filed this month as evidence in a civil court case, Curry proposed strategies to prevent police from investigating three priests who had admitted to church officials that they abused young boys. Curry suggested to Mahony that they prevent them from seeing therapists who might alert authorities and that they give the priests out-of-state assignments to avoid criminal investigators.

One such case that has previously received little attention is that of Msgr. Peter Garcia, who admitted preying for decades on undocumented children in predominantly Spanish-speaking parishes. After Garcia’s discharge from a New Mexico treatment center for pedophile clergy, Mahony ordered him to stay away from California “for the foreseeable future” in order to avoid legal accountability, the files show. “I believe that if Monsignor Garcia were to reappear here within the archdiocese we might very well have some type of legal action filed in both the criminal and civil sectors,” the archbishop wrote to the treatment center’s director in July 1986.

The following year, in a letter to Mahony about bringing Garcia back to work in the archdiocese, Curry said he was worried that victims in Los Angeles might see the priest and call police.

“[T]here are numerous — maybe twenty — adolescents or young adults that Peter was involved with in a first degree felony manner. The possibility of one of these seeing him is simply too great,” Curry wrote in May 1987.

Curry, by the way, now serves as the auxiliary bishop for Santa Barbara.

One of the keys to this ongoing story — but not to the mainstream coverage — winks out at readers in that passage from the Los Angeles Times report. The church’s strategy in that era saw pedophilia as the central problem and, to this day, that mysterious condition remains the key to mainstream news reports on this topic. Meanwhile, most of the abuse reports focused on priests having sex with, as the story notes, “adolescents or young adults,” most of them males, not with prepubescent children.

It is clear, in these new documents, that Mahony and his staff truly believed that many, if not most, of these priests could be rehabilitated and returned to ministry. As the story notes:

Mahony was appointed archbishop in 1985 after five years leading the Stockton diocese. While there, he had dealt with three allegations of clergy abuse, including one case in which he personally reported the priest to police. In Los Angeles, he tapped Curry, an Irish-born priest, as vicar of clergy. The records show that sex abuse allegations were handled almost exclusively by the archbishop and his vicar. Memos that crossed their desks included graphic details, such as one letter from another priest accusing Garcia of tying up and raping a young boy in Lancaster.

Mahony personally phoned the priests’ therapists about their progress, wrote the priests encouraging letters and dispatched Curry to visit them at a New Mexico facility, Servants of the Paraclete, that treated pedophile priests.

“Each of you there at Jemez Springs is very much in my prayers and I call you to mind each day during my celebration of the Eucharist,” Mahony wrote. …

It’s crucial to ask: What, precisely, did the Catholic leaders think they were doing? While the Los Angeles Times story gets the legal details down, coverage of the religious angles of the story are weak or nonexistent. It’s clear that Mahony and others were hiding some clergy, with the belief that they could avoid the law and return to ministry.

But why? What did they think was possible, in terms of rehabilitation? What did they believe and why did they believe it?

The same issue can be seen between the lines in The New York Times, in a new story about the same revelations on the West Coast.

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