Taking a cautious middle ground on the brewing confrontation between three activist priests and federal authorities, Los Angeles Archbishop Roger Mahony on Wednesday reaffirmed the church’s commitment to feed and shelter illegal immigrants while commanding all church facilities to obey the law prohibiting their employment.
The policy outlined by the leader of the nation’s largest Roman Catholic archdiocese noted that church teachings come into “direct conflict” with the federal immigration law and that conflict “presents all of us with serious moral questions.”
In an interview after a press conference announcing the policy, Mahony said he could have the three priests removed if they refuse to follow his directives. “But I don’t think that’s going to happen,” he said.
Asked if they would abide by the new policy, one of the three priests, Father Gregory Boyle, pastor at Dolores Mission in Boyle Heights, said he hopes to avoid a showdown with the archbishop. “I feel that I can work here and follow my conscience and do what the archbishop has in mind,” Boyle said.
The other two priests, Father Luis Olivares, pastor at the downtown Our Lady Queen of Angels, and his associate pastor, Father Michael Kennedy, could not be reached for comment.
It is not clear just how the archbishop and the three priests will come to terms on the issue. The priests have advocated civil disobedience by publicly vowing to help illegal immigrants find jobs. They have also signed statements pledging “non-cooperation” with the 1986 reform law that requires employers to maintain “I-9" forms, showing proof they checked workers’ legal status.
Mahony said his statement, “The Catholic Church’s Care for Undocumented Persons,” is a preview of a national position paper to be released next month by the U.S. Catholic bishops. It is aimed at clarifying the church’s position regarding the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who failed to qualify for amnesty under the new law but remain in the United States.
In drafting the policy, Mahony said in the interview, he had to take not only theological issues into consideration, but also “philosophical and strategic issues.”
“It was a balancing act,” he said.
The policy calls for the church to work for a more generous amnesty program and an end to employer sanctions. In the meantime, he said, churches in the archdiocese will continue to offer food, shelter and other services to immigrants, “regardless of their legal status.”
At a press conference later in the day, Harold Ezell, Western regional commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said he had no objection to churches offering help to the needy as long as they do not openly encourage illegal aliens to come into shelters with the intent of hiding from authorities.
And he said that while Mahony and he may disagree on many aspects of the law, Mahony--unlike the three activist priests--"does not encourage breaking the law.”
Mahony, who has met with Ezell to discuss immigration issues several times in the past, said he was “in harmony” with the agency. In reference to a related controversy that erupted recently after an INS agent entered a Catholic church in the city of Orange in pursuit of two illegal immigrants, Mahony said he was “encouraged by (Ezell’s) assurance” that the incident was an isolated and regrettable situation.
Met Three Weeks Ago
Mahony said he had met with the three priests as recently as three weeks ago “to understand better from them what their strategies were . . . and share with them my position.
“What I was really asking for,” he said, “was a way to make themselves mesh with archdiocesan policy. It may be a fault of my own personality and style to find a way to create solutions rather than confrontations.”
Though both Mahony and the priests declined to specify details of the discussion, a source knowledgeable about the talks said Mahony had asked the three to be less public about their vows of civil disobedience and tone down any “inflammatory rhetoric.”
Mahony said he did not question the three priests’ “moral motivation.” But, he said, he feared that the priests’ open declarations of sanctuary for illegal immigrants will give the aliens a false sense that the church can protect them from the law and that such statements will inflame anti-immigrant feelings as well.
“While there may be a variety of public policy strategies available to assist the undocumented . . . I do not and will not sanction any steps which include the direct violation of the law,” his policy stated.