Tim Rutten: Cardinal Mahony Is Right to Attend Conclave

By Tim Rutten
LA Daily News
March 7, 2013

Cardinal Roger Mahony

Sede vacante -- "the seat is empty." Thus the Roman Catholic Church, the world's largest religious denomination, describes those interregna in which the throne of Peter, the West's oldest monarchial institution, sits unoccupied, and there is no pope.

During this period, the church with its 1.2 billion members is governed by a daily meeting of the 207-member College of Cardinals, presided over by its carmerlengo, or chamberlain, the 78-year-old Italian Tarcisio Bertone. A close aid to pope emeritus Benedict XVI, he has said that any attempt to compel bishops to report pedophilic priests to civil authorities affronts "liberty of conscience" and that the church's global abuse crisis stems from an "infiltration of homosexuals" into the priesthood.

Sometime in the next few days, the last of the 115 cardinal electors -- only those under 80 can vote for the next pontiff -- will arrive in Rome, and the college will decide on when to open the next papal conclave, probably by Monday. When it begins and despite all the controversy attendant upon his participation, there will be a number of reasons to welcome the presence of Los Angeles' emeritus archbishop, Cardinal Roger Mahony, who did the right thing when he put aside demands that he not attend the conclave.

Thousands of pages of internal archdiocesan documents recently released as the final step in the 2007 legal settlement the Los Angeles church reached with more than 600 victims of clerical abuse demonstrate once again that Mahony was sometimes malfeasant and frequently tragically mistaken in the way he dealt with priest-molesters in the 1980s and early 1990s. However, it's long been known that these cases were hideously botched. After all, the archdiocese paid a $660 million cash settlement to the victims -- the largest in the history of this wretched scandal -- and Mahony has repeatedly and publicly apologized for his conduct, met often in person with those injured and, most important, implemented a set of child protection policies regarded as a national model of rigor.

Apart from the graphic impact of direct quotation, there is nothing of substance in the newly released documents that was not touched upon in a report the cardinal commissioned on the scandal in Los Angeles, which has been available on the archdiocesan web site since 2004.

Even so, the pain evoked by the documents' release lead some to demand through a petition and in the media that Mahony recuse himself from voting for the next pope. He was right to resist those calls, and not only because -- as he told Catholic News Service Monday -- the papal nunciate in the United States had conveyed to him the Holy See's instruction that he cast a ballot.

"I'm here because the Holy Father appointed me a cardinal in 1991," Mahony said, "and the primary job of a cardinal, the No. 1 job, is actually the election of a new pope should a vacancy occur. Without my even having to inquire, the (papal) nuncio in Washington phoned me a week or so ago and said, 'I have had word from the highest folks in the Vatican: You are to come to Rome and you are to participate in the conclave'."

(Mahony's circumstances, moreover, are completely different from those of the Scottish cardinal, Keith O'Brien, who rightfully removed himself from the coming election and is -- by his own admission -- himself guilty of sexual predation.)

As the New Yorker pointed out this week, "Mahony's defenders say that he is being singled out, and they have a point. Anne Burke, an Illinois judge who served on the Catholic Bishops' advisory board, told the (New York Times) that too many Church leaders had 'participated in one way or another in having actual information about criminal conduct, and not doing anything. What are you going to do? They're all not going to participate in the conclave?"'

Beyond that, there are other reasons Mahony will be a salutary presence once the doors of the Sistine Chapel are barred to outsiders. The Catholic Church, whose members comprise 25 percent of the American population, is in the midst of an existential crisis. The Jesuit theologian James Hanvey described it in an interview this week as a state of "ecclesial desolation." In choosing the word "desolation," the Irish-born professor at Santa Clara University evoked a term from his order's beloved Ignatian exercises, one that denotes a condition of arid struggle from which God seems to be absent. Hanvey attributed that situation first and foremost to the abuse crisis and, secondarily, to the way in which hierarchical authority is exercise within the church. Before they elect their next pontiff, he said, the cardinals require a "reflective and not a defensive conversation."

As public reports of that conversation emerge in fragments, it's notable that only the American prelates seem to be raising the crucial issue of clerical abuse. Boston's Cardinal Sean O'Malley told the Wall Street Journal this week that the next pope must confront the "monumental task" of enforcing rigorous child protection policies around the globe. "The Holy See is ... going to have to assure that they're well written and then to guarantee that their implementation is carried out." Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said the next pope "obviously has to accept the universal code of the church now, which is zero tolerance for who has abused a child. There's a deep-seated conviction, certainly on the part of anyone who has been a pastor, that this has to be continually addressed."

At the same time, internal disaffection on a range of other issues deemed untouchable under Benedict is rampant in the church. A recent poll, for example, showed that 67 percent of American Catholics believe their priests should be allowed to marry and that 59 percent favor the ordination of women as priests. Similarly, a survey of German Catholics found that 85 percent want a married clergy, while 75 percent approve the ordination of women and 79 percent want divorced believers to be allowed to remarry in the church. The latter issue is one of those, which -- along with the cover-up of clerical abuse -- has lead more than 150,000 Austrian Catholics to formally renounce their membership in the church.

For those who hope for a pontiff who will address such issues, it's worth recalling that, as Cardinal Archbishop of Los Angeles, Mahony had an exemplary record of progressive pastoral care. He has been a tireless advocate for immigrants and working men and women, particularly those in poverty. He was a proponent of liturgical reform and elevated women and lay people to key leadership roles throughout the archdiocese. The experience of that will be critical for a cardinal-elector in this conclave.

When it comes to clerical abuse, a sober reading of the record shows that Mahony passed through an evolution -- initially sharing the reflexive defensiveness and secrecy that tragically still prevails in many national episcopates, to a tragically mistaken reliance on the now abandoned psychiatric believe that pedophilia was a treatable condition, to an acceptance that zero tolerance and complete openness with law enforcement was the only decent path forward.

In fact, the public record shows that the overwhelming majority of the abuse cases in Los Angeles occurred before Mahony became archbishop and that, following his appointment, abuse declined every year until it reached levels unknown since the 1930s -- that despite the exponential growth in the number of priests and the Catholic population.

None of that excuses the malfeasance and mistakes that occurred in the 80s and early 90s; nor does Mahony claim that it should. There will be no perfect electors in the next conclave -- there never are -- but few will have confronted the public exposition of their imperfections and shortcomings as publicly and as painfully as has Roger Mahony.

The 7 million Catholics of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, America's largest, deserve to have the fruits of that agonizing confrontation represented in the election of their next pope.


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