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KCET Losses Balanced by New Support : Television: Board member resigns and 90 subscribers cancel after Cardinal Mahony’s attack on the station for program on AIDS. But others come forward with donations.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A member of the KCET board of directors resigned and at least 90 other people canceled memberships Friday after Cardinal Roger Mahony denounced the public television station for its planned airing of a film critical of the Catholic Church’s stance on AIDS and homosexuality.

But nearly as many others pledged donations, and the National Organization for Women said it will organize a fund-raising effort for KCET, Channel 28, to counteract Mahony’s call for a withdrawal of financial support for the station.

Meanwhile, the Public Broadcasting Service, which itself declined to run the film, “Stop the Church,” supported KCET’s right to air it.

“It is sad, tragic, that people, when they disagree, feel this need to be punitive and somehow to punish the station financially,” said John Grant, vice president for scheduling and programming administration at PBS. "(Mahony’s) opinions are his opinions, but I disagree with his attempt to punish KCET for using their editorial judgment.”

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The KCET board member who resigned was George Pla, president and chief executive officer of the Cordoba Corp., who said that “Stop the Church” is “offensive and promotes hatred.”

Pla, a Catholic, said his resignation stemmed from his own disagreement with KCET’s decision to air the program, and was not influenced by Mahony’s actions.

A well-placed source at the Cordoba Corp. said the company, owned by Pla, would withdraw its recent pledge of $100,000 to the station. Pla would not discuss the company’s decision to withdraw its pledge.

By 3 p.m. Friday, 85 Southern Californians, including practicing Catholics, had called the station with new memberships and extra pledges to show support for the station as it dealt with the fallout from Mahony’s censure, according to Barbara Goen, KCET vice president for public information.

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“I’ve never written or expressed anything before, but I can’t keep my mouth shut about this,” said Luciana Jessup of Laguna Hills, who said that she mailed a check for $200 to KCET Friday morning. Describing herself as a Catholic who is not gay, Jessup said she was also sending a letter to Mahony, complaining about his actions.

“When I called the Archdiocese, the public relations person said that I should view the film before I make up my mind,” Jessup said. “And yet, he didn’t want to give me that right in the first place.”

On Thursday, Mahony likened KCET’s planned Friday night airing of “Stop the Church” to religious hate crimes such as the firebombing of synagogues. The film documents a 1989 protest at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York by the AIDS activist group ACT UP. Through a news conference and advertisements in The Times and the Los Angeles Daily News, Mahony urged area residents to withhold funds from the station.

But KCET stuck to its plan to air a program about the controversy created by “Stop the Church” Friday night.

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According to KCET’s Goen, about 500 people had called the station by midafternoon, equally divided in their support or censure.

“Among the positive calls has been a huge stack of pledges,” Goen said. “A man just walked into the lobby with a check for $200.”

“I’m real proud of KCET for taking this stand,” said television writer Rob Wilson, who said he planned to send $100 to KCET. “I resent that (Mahony) called it a hate crime--it’s a broadcast, for heaven’s sake!”

Wilson said that while he might not like the show, and might even agree with Mahony’s contention that it was “despicable,” he wanted to judge for himself.

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“The vast majority of Americans do not appreciate television censorship, whether it comes from religious leaders or anyplace else,” said Richard Jennings, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

On the other side of the issue, Mather Hathout, chairman of the Islamic Center of Southern California, said that while he had not seen the program, he supported Mahony’s stand.

“When a religious leader expresses his opinion based on his convictions, (society) considers this fanaticism,” Hathout said. “If the video is perceived as insulting to Catholicism, this should be respected.”

However, Hathout did not endorse Mahony’s call for financial sanctions against KCET.

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“Until I see the movie myself, I can’t say whether it really deserves such drastic action, especially since KCET provides good programs in other areas,” Hathout said.

Donna Huckaby, a teacher at St. Francis High School in La Canada, said that she and her husband planned to cancel their longtime KCET membership if the film proved as objectionable as Mahony claimed.

“It sounds like a Nazi-esque presentation,” Huckaby said. “I have to see the program first, but if I feel the way I do now, we will certainly withdraw our support.”

The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) said that Mahony unfairly maligned the group in his press conference and ads.

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“We have been slandered by Cardinal Mahony,” said Jim McDaniels, ACT UP’s Los Angeles spokesman. “We are caring, loving people who have been devastated by the AIDS crisis. We have friends and many people in the group who are HIV positive or have AIDS, and this leads us to direct action. But we are not a hate group.”

McDaniels said that Mahony’s incorrect claim that “Stop the Church” showed ACT UP members spilling communion wafers--a contention that was repeated by The Times in Friday’s editions--was part of a national effort to misrepresent the organization.

Mahony’s call for viewers to consider boycotting KCET because of “Stop the Church” comes at a time when the station is particularly vulnerable to a drop in funds. Last year, the uncertain economy left KCET with $5 million less in corporate donations and individual pledges than it had anticipated.

Several of those who reported they were donating extra money to support the station in the wake of Mahony’s censure said they initially had not planned to give this year.

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“We were thinking of not sending money to KCET this year in order to save some money, but now that KCET is taking this brave step, I’m going to be making a contribution,” said a Sherman Oaks woman who asked that her name not be used.

Julian Siminski said that he had been holding back on the renewal of his KCET membership for fear that the station would not broadcast “Stop the Church” and other programs about gays or AIDS.

But the Catholic screenwriter said that Mahony’s actions made him feel compelled to send in as much as he could afford.

“I was brought up Polish Catholic, extremely strict,” Siminski said. “And I know if my father were alive and my mother (who is in a nursing home) could speak for herself, they would just be appalled. Because this is not the way they raised us.”

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