LA cardinal's legacy tainted by priest abuse

The Associated Press
Saturday, February 26, 2011; 10:41 PM

LOS ANGELES -- When Cardinal Roger Mahony was ordained nearly a half-century ago, the Roman Catholic church was in the throes of a modernization and renewal - and the lanky young priest who grew up near his family's poultry processing plant was seen as a leading liberal light for the times.

As a seminarian and young cleric, the Spanish-speaking Hollywood native celebrated Mass with Mexican fieldworkers, worked with Cesar Chavez to fight for better farmworker conditions and was appointed auxiliary bishop of Fresno, the heart of California's bread basket, at the tender age of 38.

Mahony retires Sunday and hopes to cement that legacy by dedicating himself fulltime to the fight for immigration reform. For many, though, the cardinal's career will instead be defined - and irreparably tainted - by a devastating clergy abuse scandal that unfolded on his watch, first as bishop of Stockton and then as head of nation's largest archdiocese.

The scandal, which resulted in a $660 million settlement with more than 500 plaintiffs, proved to be the biggest erosion of Mahony's authority in a church that had already shifted around him with a revived emphasis on orthodoxy and tradition. In his final years in Los Angeles, Mahony has been dogged by hundreds of lawsuits, criminal investigations into clergy abuse in the archdiocese and a bitter legal fight over sealed church files on some of the church's worst abusive priests.

Even in his final days as archbishop, newly uncovered allegations against an aging priest refocused attention on Mahony's role and forced the resignation of the archdiocese's vicar for clergy. Still, Mahony managed to hang on, unlike Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned as Boston archbishop over his failure to stop predatory priests.

"In a very paradoxical way, you contrast him with Cardinal Law, and I wonder if there aren't people in the Vatican who admired Mahony since he hung tough," said James Hitchcock, a St. Louis University historian who studies American Catholicism. "No one circled the wagons like Mahony."

Mahony declined repeated interview requests through his spokesman, Tod Tamberg. In response to e-mailed questions, Tamberg declined to comment on specific clergy abuse cases but said the cardinal does not remember the priest whose continued ministry led the vicar of clergy to resign earlier this month.

When Mahony entered the priesthood, the biggest news in the church was not clergy sex abuse, but the landmark Second Vatican Council, a series of meetings convened in the 1960s to modernize the church. He advanced rapidly in the hierarchy, becoming bishop of Stockton in 1980 and archbishop of Los Angeles in 1985, and was elevated to cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 1991.

The decades of Mahony's service defined an arc of dramatic change that saw the church shift from the more liberal attitudes of the 1960s to a centralized hierarchy under Pope John Paul II and a renewed embrace of tradition under Pope Benedict XVI. The selection of Archbishop Jose Gomez to take over after Mahony's 75th birthday underscores those changes: Gomez is a member of Opus Dei, the influential group favored by Pope John Paul II that fiercely defends church orthodoxy and authority.

"Cardinal Mahony was certainly among a group of bishops, if you had to break in one direction or another following the Second Vatican Council, who were more open to changing things," said Mark Brumley, chief executive of Ignatius Press and a former director of social ministries for the Diocese of San Diego. "I think as the church, we're finding the right balance between continuity and change. Cardinal Mahony was more in the change direction."

After being ordained in 1962, Mahony championed the cause of farmworkers as a young priest in Fresno, marching with Cesar Chavez, serving on the Mexican-American Council for Better Housing and leading the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board, where he oversaw the implementation of sweeping labor reforms for farmworkers.

He opposed an initiative that would have barred undocumented immigrants from most public services and supported legislation to allow them driver's licenses. Last year, the cardinal stood on a truck bed and chanted "Si se puede!" at a Los Angeles rally to protest Arizona's controversial immigration law.

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