Scandal Puts Focus on Los Angeles Cardinal

By Gillian Flaccus
The Associated Press, carried in Newsday [Los Angeles CA]
November 26, 2004

LOS ANGELES -- Cardinal Roger Mahony has been considered a voice for the dispossessed ever since he supported farmworkers' rights in the 1960s. But he draws sharp criticism from those who feel he protects the church at the expense of sexual abuse victims and others who disapprove of his fight to keep internal church documents secret.

The Catholic church faces nearly 1,000 clergy sex abuse lawsuits in California, including almost 500 in Los Angeles alone.

Mahony, who declined an interview for this story but answered 16 of 22 written questions, will likely receive increased scrutiny as a result of the suits in Los Angeles and dioceses where he served previously. He presides over 4.2 million Catholics who comprise the nation's largest archdiocese.

He was deposed Tuesday about his supervision of alleged molester priests in the Stockton, Fresno and Monterey dioceses where he worked before coming to Los Angeles.

"He has had a long, long history of knowing about sexual abuse in his diocese," said Richard Sipe, a former monk and author of books on celibacy.

But others believe the cardinal is more a victim of softhearted impulses and massive miscalculations.

He has treated priests "with the same kind of generosity and spirit of forgiveness that he wants to see society show toward the marginalized," said David Gibson, author of "The Coming Catholic Church."

Tall and lanky, with thinning hair and glasses, Mahony moves easily among Hispanic parishioners, holds Mass in fluent Spanish and speaks for those on the edge of society, from migrant workers to recent Vietnamese immigrants.

In Los Angeles, he has supported legislation to let illegal immigrants get driver's licenses and opposed a state initiative barring undocumented immigrants from public services.

"Among Latinos, there's a real high regard for Cardinal Mahony," said Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farmworkers of America. "He's ... taken a pretty controversial position that a lot of mainstream folks don't agree with."

The cardinal also drew fire for championing the lavish $189 million Our Lady of the Angels cathedral in downtown Los Angeles. It has drawn 2 million visitors since it opened in 2002, but also has drawn harsh reviews from some for its price tag and modern design.

Mahony's position now is a long way from his humble beginnings on a chicken ranch in Hollywood, where he and twin brother Louis worked alongside laborers and learned Spanish at an early age.

As a young priest and auxiliary bishop in the heavily agricultural Fresno Diocese in the 1960s and 1970s, Mahony worked as a mediator for farmworkers fighting for better conditions and served on a state labor relations board that implemented sweeping reforms.

Farmers and organizers of the Teamsters union threatened and intimidated him, at one point slashing the tires on his car. Contributions to the Fresno Diocese dropped sharply. "I realized that the people making the threats against me actually had a greater fear than I did," Mahony said.

Colleagues from those days remember Mahony as a workaholic -- yet someone who made time to throw parties for seminarians and play practical jokes.

"I always said he was so active that his self-winding wristwatch would run for six months after he died," said Monsignor James Cain, vicar general in Stockton when Mahony was bishop there in the 1980s.

Yet other observers compare Mahony with Boston's now-departed Cardinal Bernard Law. Like Mahony, Law was popular with parishioners -- and he worked tirelessly for civil rights as a Mississippi priest in the 1960s. But he became a divisive figure in Boston when it was revealed that for years he had covered up for predator priests.

Mahony is shadowed by decisions about the careers of at least three men.

In 1987, Mahony transferred a priest accused in a church report of "indiscreet conduct with young boys" to a hospital chaplain's post in Los Angeles. The chaplain was later accused of abusing an 11-year-old boy and awaits trial.

Mahony also transferred another priest who had told him he molested young boys. Later, Mahony approved a $1.25 million settlement with two boys and a new criminal investigation of the alleged molester is under way in Los Angeles.

Mahony declined to answer questions about those cases while investigations continue. He cited a report in which the archdiocese said it knows of only three priests who were accused of re-offending after they were reported for abuse and underwent psychological treatment.

In another case, in Stockton, Mahony transferred a young priest to a rural parish after the priest admitted sexually molesting a young child.

Two of Oliver O'Grady's victims subsequently sued the Stockton Diocese and won $7.5 million in a landmark 1998 trial during which Mahony testified. O'Grady pleaded guilty to abuse in 1993, served seven years in prison and was deported to his native Ireland.

Mahony said the Stockton police "basically said they could not find any victim and they were not recommending any further steps be taken."

The Rev. Thomas Doyle, an expert witness for victims in hundreds of abuse cases, said he believes confidential documents involved in the civil litigation could reveal that Mahony sheltered more priests than has been disclosed.

In February, Mahony's refusal to turn over priest personnel files to prosecutors was criticized by a Catholic lay panel appointed to monitor the clergy abuse problem nationwide. But Mahony and his attorneys say the remaining documents contain no damaging information.

The cardinal insists that the church has made tremendous progress in preventing molestation.

"There's been an evolution over the years on how these matters have been understood by professionals as well as by the Church," he said. "I think our overall efforts are bearing much fruit. The number of incidents of abuse that have occurred in recent years has dropped dramatically."


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