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Archbishop Shows Off His Copter : Fends Off Flak Fired by Critics of the Gift

Times Religion Writer

Archbishop Roger M. Mahony displayed his newly donated, jet-powered helicopter Tuesday and flew it briefly around Van Nuys Airport--but not before steering his way through questions about the propriety of accepting the $400,000 gift.

Mahony, who received his helicopter pilot license last summer, described the blue-and-white craft as a “pastoral tool available when we want it” for overcoming traffic problems and the distances involved in visits to archdiocese facilities in Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

The gift does not represent money diverted from the needy, the Los Angeles archbishop told a news conference inside an airport hangar.

The unnamed donors “are men who have given at least a million dollars each to the archdiocese in the last year, in some cases, much more than a million. They, in fact, are taking leadership in raising the $100 million for our inner-city scholarship fund,” Mahony said.

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The donor group was organized by attorney Richard J. Riordan of Los Angeles, a friend of the archbishop, and includes four others who formed a nonprofit organization to buy the McDonnell Douglas 500D helicopter and give it to Mahony, The Times reported earlier.

The helicopter’s operating and maintenance costs will be covered by an arrangement with HeliNet Aviation Services of Van Nuys, which will be able to rent it for charter or commercial services when it is not needed for church use, Mahony said. No church money is being spent on it, he added.

“Should it later become evident that archdiocesan funds would be required to continue with the craft,” Mahony pledged, “then I would simply have it sold and the money returned to the donors.”

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A spokeswoman for the Catholic Worker organization in Los Angeles had questioned the use of the money for the helicopter in an interview with The Times in light of the needs of the homeless, refugees and immigrants.

Aware of possible criticism, Mahony said that he sought the counsel of a committee of his five auxiliary bishops and 35 priests last October. All but one recommended its acceptance. “I was surprised the vote was so overwhelming in favor,” Mahony said.

Mahony also quoted a letter of support from Archbishop Pio Laghi, the Vatican’s representative in Washington. “It certainly can be very useful in circumstances such as those which you experience in Los Angeles,” wrote Laghi, who recalled Pope John Paul II’s use of a helicopter on his two-day visit to Los Angeles in September, 1987.

Illustrating the copter’s usefulness, Mahony said that if he were to visit a sick priest in the Lompoc area, he would not have time “for anything else during the day” because of the long drive. In recent months, he said, traffic has made him late to three of four meetings at the archdiocesan seminary in Camarillo.

Mahony, often away in Washington or abroad on church business, said he has been criticized “quite a bit that I’m not in enough places frequently enough” within the 3-million-member archdiocese, the nation’s most populous.

Although he pointed out a St. Christopher medal that he placed in the cockpit and jokingly said the last instruction on his check list was “pray,” Mahony said that flying has a calming effect on him. “I find it very relaxing to fly for two to three hours. It’s like being gone for two or three days,” he said.


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