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COLUMN ONE : All Business in Doing God’s Work : Mahony’s no-nonsense approach has left an indelible mark on the Roman Catholic archdiocese. The cardinal is admired for his accomplishments, but some detractors find him harsh.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is one of those dank, dreary nights on Skid Row, when swollen-eyed men hunker beneath cardboard lean-tos and the stench of urine poisons the evening dew.

Inside his residence at St. Vibiana’s Cathedral in Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony is rattling doors, a routine security rite before bedtime prayers. Tonight the deadbolt on the 2nd Street door is jammed.

Clang! Clang! Clang! Within moments, His Eminence, wielding a hammer, is pounding the twisted deadbolt with the ardor of a television evangelist. It is after 10 o’clock, the door wide open at one of downtown’s grittiest crossroads, and the man who will help elect the next Pope-- who could even be the next Pope-- is tending to a thumb-sized chunk of metal.

Someone less impetuous might phone a locksmith or, at the least, summon a fellow priest to keep sentry. Not Mahony. Got a problem? Let’s fix it. Now.

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“He is not a man ruled by caution,” said Msgr. George Niederauer, whose friendship with Mahony dates to the mid-1950s when they were seminarians. “He has enormous faith, great vision for the church, and is a man of real zeal and optimism.”

Another colleague, avowedly less admiring, likened the 56-year-old cardinal’s approach to living on a high-speed carousel spinning out of control: The ride may seem exhilarating, but you never know how long the other riders can--or really want to--hold on.

It has been nearly seven years since the bishop of Stockton bid farewell to the vineyards and hayfields of the San Joaquin Valley to become the fourth archbishop of Los Angeles, the spiritual leader to 3 million Catholic souls scattered across three Southern California counties and holder of one of the most coveted religious posts in the West.

In a church whose history spans two millennia, and in a city founded by Catholic missionaries more than three centuries ago, Mahony’s tenure in Los Angeles is relatively brief. Just one year ago, on June 28, he was elevated to the College of Cardinals, becoming the first Los Angeles-born cardinal and only the third cardinal in the city’s history.

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Yet Mahony’s no-nonsense and fast-paced attitude already has left an indelible mark on the most populous archdiocese in the country.

He has shepherded an ambitious $100-million endowment campaign for parochial schools, undertaken a sweeping restructuring of the chancery’s entrenched bureaucracy and led efforts to build church-subsidized housing in poor neighborhoods. In a major focus of his ministry, he has reached out to Latinos, most recently by starting a Spanish-language church newspaper that offers everything from recipes to advice columns.

But the Hollywood-born prelate has stretched his ministry far beyond the parish halls of his most faithful. Despite a deceptively low-key and uninspired delivery, Mahony has spoken his mind on everything from AIDS to nuclear war, becoming an enduring but unlikely celebrity in a city that often measures fame in cold cash, not heated convictions.

Admirers praise the lanky archbishop as decisive and audacious, a hands-on, can-do priest whose selfless devotion and spiritual fortitude have propelled him to the upper echelons of the world’s most influential church.

Detractors see a man who is doctrinaire and unyielding, a calculating prelate whose pious pursuits become sullied by self-promotion and an assaultive--even ruthless--style. What is he after anyway, they ask.

“Half the people love him, the other half hate him,” sighed his brother, Neil Mahony, a salesman in Ventura County who as a rule does not talk church business with his sibling. “No matter what he does, even if he doesn’t do anything, a bunch is going to be mad about it.”

Mahony has little patience for such talk. He believes he has been called to spiritual service--and there is no time to waste.

“My theory is that if we make the wrong decision, we can always abandon it or change it, or fine-tune it,” he said one morning from his office in a run-down neighborhood west of downtown. “But taking forever to ever get to the decision, to me, that is one of the faults of the church over the centuries.”

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Quick to flash his toothy smile and partake in good-natured practical jokes (he once sent an urgent note to a subordinate to call Mr. G. Raff at the zoo), Mahony finds little humor in the assortment of names and ideological labels that have been hurled at him during his frenetic tenure here.

Indeed, the habit of many cardinal-watchers of viewing Mahony’s every move through their own ideological prisms has confused the public and mistakenly characterized him as everything from a right-wing fundamentalist to a closet socialist, some church scholars say.

Some conservatives cast Mahony’s many pronouncements and causes as those of a die-hard liberal. Just look, they argue, at his opposition to the execution of Robert Alton Harris, his national leadership last year against the Persian Gulf War and his anti-nuclear pastoral letters. Not enough? Consider his lifelong dedication to immigrant Latino causes, especially his enthusiastic support for amnesty legislation. (The Spanish-speaking Mahony boasts that his archdiocese helped more applicants fill out amnesty paperwork than any other group in the country.)

Some liberals, however, have grown disenchanted with the cardinal--a registered Democrat--and what they regard as his conservative agenda. This is the man who supports Operation Rescue protests, denounces the use of condoms--even for AIDS prevention--and last year called for a boycott of public television over a film showing AIDS activists protesting the Catholic Church. He also single-handedly crushed efforts to unionize the archdiocese’s cemetery gravediggers, most of whom are Latino.

“He is a very inconsistent and complex man,” said Ramona Ripston, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

The problem with such characterizations, church scholars explain, is that they are born in a secular world that has little appreciation for the intricacies--and seeming contradictions--of Roman Catholic doctrine, or they come from ideologues within the church who are unhappy with the theologically conservative direction of Pope John Paul II.

No, these scholars posit, Mahony is not growing any more conservative than the Catholic Church as a whole, even if he did have a falling out with organized labor over the cemetery issue. He also is not a bleeding-heart liberal, they said.

“The cardinal follows the church’s agenda very explicitly,” said Father Donald P. Merrifield, a Jesuit scholar and chancellor at Loyola Marymount University. “It is confusing to do because the church is rather radical in the social and political areas . . . but it is very conservative on sexual and abortion issues. He is very consistent with the views of the bishops throughout the world, and the Pope.”

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Father Thomas J. Reese, a fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University and author of a book on American archbishops, said Mahony’s views are mainstream Roman Catholic--as defined by the Vatican--but they attract unusual scrutiny because of his high-visibility ministry and forceful personal style. Of the 10 cardinals and 36 archbishops in the United States, he said, only New York Cardinal John J. O’Connor maintains an equally conspicuous public persona.

As a “media-conscious archbishop” who works “with a flourish,” Reese said, Mahony has been an easy rallying point for friend and foe. Mahony typically works 12- to 15-hour days, keeps an intense public and private schedule and freely speaks his mind.

“I think he really cares about the issues facing the church, and he wants to get the message out,” Reese said. “But clearly he also makes sure that he doesn’t conflict with established (church) policies and decisions by the U.S. bishops.”

As one church scholar, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, more bluntly assessed Mahony’s stewardship: “If Rome sneezes, he comes down with pneumonia. . . . He has been very deferential to (the Pope).”

Since coming to Los Angeles, the cardinal--as Mahony prefers to be addressed--has taken on the Hollywood film industry, organized labor, public television, Roe vs. Wade, the Pentagon, the death penalty, gays and lesbians and 7-Eleven stores selling Playboy magazines.

He has opposed birth control, traveled on a peace mission to El Salvador and fought a proposed prison in East Los Angeles. He has spoken against upcoming ballot measures that would legalize euthanasia and reduce welfare benefits in California and has pledged with other religious leaders to quell gang violence through a multimillion-dollar take-back-the-neighborhoods campaign.

The nation’s youngest cardinal has even asked elderly priests and nuns to volunteer to test an experimental AIDS vaccine.

“He is not afraid to bite the bullet,” said Msgr. John Esquivel, a Bakersfield priest who worked with Mahony for 10 years. “At times people can misunderstand that. They view it as ruthless.”

Ruthless?

Mahony smiled. His is a friendly, priestly grin that bares a crooked pre-orthodontic cob of teeth. His eyes are dark and searching, framed by an oversized pair of wire-rimmed bifocals, the sort more fitting Lee Iacocca than a prince of the papacy. His soft, mellow voice rings pastoral, and almost seems meek at times.

But if body language speaks, the cardinal’s right foot was screaming this morning. Tap! Tap! Tap! It raced nonstop against the blue-and-mauve cushioned carpet of his wood-paneled corner office. Tap! Tap! Tap! When he crossed his legs, the pulsating foot continued to flail in midair.

As composed and sedate as Mahony usually appears--one former co-worker described him as an emotionless “Star Trek"-style android running on a computer chip--the cardinal’s anxiety and nervous energy sometimes are too intense to mask.

“People who really take seriously their position and work hard at it are always going to be criticized,” he said, his voice growing defensive and his foot still in motion. “There is really no middle ground. Either you are a lazy slob, or you are ambitious. If you are working, really trying to do a good job, someone is always going to label you.”

It is an appealing argument, particularly from someone speaking so obviously from years of experience. But ask William R. Robertson, Barbara Mejia or some other local labor leaders--including some Catholics--and they will tell you it is not just a question of labels.

They say they have seen a shockingly unholy--yes, even ruthless--side to the cardinal.

For nearly three years, Mahony resisted union efforts to organize the archdiocese’s 140 cemetery workers, who, by any measure, were underpaid and poorly treated when Mahony came on the scene in 1985. Mahony, who has since improved the wages and working conditions, accused the union of “anti-Catholic rhetoric” and making personal attacks on his integrity.

Union leaders in turn accused him of union-busting and going back on his word, particularly when he refused to honor an early vote in favor of union representation after an arbitration panel upheld the tally. Mahony asserted that union supporters had coerced the workers, and in subsequent votes, the gravediggers rejected the union effort.

Mahony prevailed, but the clash left some labor leaders deeply embittered. The local chapter of the AFL-CIO was still so angry in February that it publicly mocked Mahony by granting him a fictional Valentine’s Day “No Heart” award.

“He is the most deceitful and dishonest person I have ever run into in my life,” said Mejia, business manager for the Amalgamated Clothing & Textile Workers Union, the union at the center of the dispute with Mahony. “And yes, I am a Catholic. That is one of the great aggravations I have.”

Mahony, in a letter to The Times last fall, defended his handling of the gravediggers, saying it “simply is not true” that he pursued an anti-union strategy. Earlier, he accused union representatives of “hostile, strident and confrontational methods” and “conflict deception.”

“Since the inception of this issue, my commitment--rooted in Catholic social teachings--has been to insist upon the rights of workers to decide who will represent them and that this decision must be made in the privacy of a secret ballot without harassment,” Mahony said in the letter.

Wayward labor leaders are not the only ones who claim to have seen the two faces of Mahony.

The longtime chairman of the archdiocesan Commission on Obscenity and Pornography was recently ousted from his volunteer post after Mahony, angered by his handling of a controversial seminar in Hollywood, accused the chairman of embarrassing him and the archdiocese. The chairman, Santa Barbara businessman Dennis Jarrard, insists that he was working with Mahony’s blessing and is at a loss to explain why the cardinal turned on him.

“It really sickens me,” Jarrard said. “There are people in the church who say he flip-flops on things out of political pressure. . . . Somehow, somebody somewhere absolutely turned him around on this.”

Mahony removed Jarrard in late February, three weeks after Jarrard had arranged for the cardinal to speak at a seminar at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood on the “moral breakdown” of society as evidenced by pornography and violence in movies and television shows. At the same conference, Ted Baehr, chairman of the conservative Atlanta-based Christian Film and Television Commission, proposed a motion picture and television code that would forbid--among other things--suggestive dancing, lustful kissing, sex perversion, nudity and the portrayal of police officers being killed by criminals.

At Jarrard’s urging, Mahony’s office issued a news release several days before the seminar announcing, “Cardinal Mahony to Call for Independent Movie and TV Code.” But sources inside the chancery said Mahony had no idea that Baehr’s proposal would be so extreme. Mahony asserts that he never saw the press release, and his office spent the next week trying to distance Mahony from Baehr, insisting the cardinal had never endorsed Baehr’s code, while a veritable Who’s Who in the movie industry condemned the code as censorship.

But Jarrard, as the cardinal’s chief adviser on obscenity and pornography, continued to push Mahony, going so far as to join Baehr in issuing another news release claiming the Vatican had embraced the proposal. Jarrard produced a letter from Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, head of the Pontifical Council for the Family, assuring Jarrard that he had read materials on the proposed code “with great interest” and even suggesting that it be extended to television and videos.

Mahony responded with a no-nonsense two-page letter of his own to Jarrard, removing him as chairman and forbidding him to make any public statements or ‘give any media interviews on behalf of the archdiocese.

The letter was one of Mahony’s legendary “midnight missiles,” as some have dubbed the cardinal’s occasional late-night missives. The letters and memos are usually written in a moment of anger or frustration, and some colleagues from Fresno, Stockton and Los Angeles say they have been known to reduce recipients to tears. Through the years, a string of advisers have recommended a “cooling off period” before Mahony sends the correspondence, but the cardinal has rarely yielded.

“I am writing to Cardinal Lopez Trujillo at once . . . requesting that neither he nor his Pontifical Council have any dealings whatsoever with you from this day forward,” Mahony wrote in a Feb. 21 letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Times. “You have caused me and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles much embarrassment, and I simply cannot allow you to function in this way. Please do not seek an appointment to discuss any of this, since I do not wish to see you.”

An official with a prominent national anti-pornography group, sympathetic to Jarrard, said Mahony “cut him off at the knees” because of pressure from film industry leaders, who were appalled at Mahony’s association with Baehr’s fundamentalist group and his support for the strict movie code.

“Nobody wants to be known as a censor,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Everybody wants to be liked. (Jarrard) made too much noise. He wouldn’t go along with the party line . . . when the cardinal compromised and backed off (his support for the code).”

Mahony offered a different version: He never intended to endorse the code.

“It is at the wrong end of the process,” Mahony said. “Ratings and codes only come into play when the production is done. We have to get to the creative end, to the beginning of the process, where you have the writers and directors.”

Mahony said he removed Jarrard as commission chairman because he had transformed the advisory group into a “one-man show” operating from his Santa Barbara home. Mahony said he plans to reorganize the commission to ensure broader participation, and said Jarrard will be welcome to participate in the revamped group.

The cardinal praised Jarrard’s “goodwill and commitment,” but when told of Jarrard’s criticism of him, said the wealthy businessman is unaccustomed to not getting his way. “I don’t think anyone ever criticizes or critiques Dennis Jarrard,” Mahony said. “I don’t think anyone has ever had to say to him, ‘Dennis, we can’t do it this way.’ ”

There have been other clashes.

In one, a crotchety Stockton physician who donated large sums of money to an inner-city soup kitchen and medical clinic had a nasty run-in with then-Bishop Mahony in the early 1980s.

Dr. Virgil Gianelli, who confesses to having difficulty getting along with most people, threatened to take Mahony to small claims court. The doctor, a widower at the time, accused Mahony of misappropriating several hundred dollars from a trust fund set up for the diocese by Gianelli and his late wife.

After an exchange of letters, Gianelli said, as he clutched several of them in his shaking hand, he got a telephone call from Mahony.

“He called me, and said: ‘You have the audacity to bring your bishop to court? I am glad that your wife died! She was too good for you,’ ” the octogenarian recalled from a back-room pharmacy at the Stockton clinic where he still volunteers. “He could devastate people with the things he would say,” he continued, his voice brimming with hurt and rage.

Not true. Absolutely not true, Mahony protested.

“I never said that,” the cardinal snapped one weekend from his living room at St. Vibiana’s, his voice hushed but firm. “Dr. Gianelli was not an easy person to work with in anything, but I would never say that to anybody.”

Mahony shifted in his chair. An awkward silence followed.

“I had almost forgotten about Dr. Gianelli,” he finally said. “I didn’t say that to him, I know that. But that isn’t to say that somebody else didn’t say that to him. . . . I can think of about 50 people who would. I’ll bet everyone in Stockton believed that statement. I think everyone thought: ‘How could you ever live with this guy?’ Even going to lunch with him was a real cross.”

Gianelli said he has long since forgiven Mahony, as any “good Christian” is obliged to do. Mahony came around, he said--actually sent him a handwritten letter of reconciliation, which he yanked from a manila file--after the doctor threatened to tell all to Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco, who in a roundabout way has jurisdiction over the Stockton diocese.

In the end, Gianelli alleged, it was ambition--Mahony’s deep desire to achieve greater things than Stockton--that led to their begrudging reconciliation.

It was an accusation worse than the first. Ambition is a forbidden word in the Catholic Church, where men and women pledge a selfless life of poverty and obedient service to the Lord. For a successful man of the cloth such as Mahony, it is a nagging accusation which, despite many denials, has dogged him for years and will not go away.

“There is nothing more dangerous or destructive of a priesthood than that,” Mahony said. “You’re setting these kinds of personal goals to get places in the hierarchical church. There is nothing that is more obvious, that more saps the vitality of a really priestly heart. It is something that we have to be constantly alert to.

“Ambition in the secular sense for a priest is probably one of the most deadly things.”

Mahony’s long, oval face looked drawn and pained. It is a subject he does not enjoy talking about, but one he has dealt with countless times during his 30 years as a priest, 17 as a bishop.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles

The archdiocese of Los Angeles is a sprawling see that covers Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. With more than 3 million Roman Catholics (unofficial estimates accounting for illegal immigrants place the number closer to 4 million), it is the most populous U.S. archdiocese of the world’s largest church.

The archdiocese, which until 1976 also encompassed Orange County, has an annual budget of more than $360 million and owns more than $1.4 billion in assets.

Since being named archbishop in 1985, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony has attracted national attention to the archdiocese--and sometimes roused controversy among Catholics and non-Catholics--by speaking out on everything from AIDS research to the Persian Gulf War.

Following is a snapshot of the increasingly influential archdiocese:

THE BUDGET

1991 operating revenues

* Tuition, registration and fees: 34.50%

* Donations and collections: 30.94%

* Sales, service fees and fund raising: 18.78%

* Rents, royalties and other income: 7.95%

* Cemetery sales: 4.25%

* Fees and grants: 3.56%

TOTAL: $361.4 million

1991 operating expenses

* Educational and formational services: 52.78%

* Pastoral and evangelization: 31.40%

* Social services: 9.03%

* Cemetery expenses: 4.18%

* Chancery office administrative expenses: 1.63%

* Other: 0.97%

TOTAL: $361.1 million

PERSONNEL

1986 1992 Priests 1401 1339 Deacons, Brothers, Sisters 2825 2675

FACILITIES

1986 1992 Parishes 284 283 Missions 27 9 Hospitals 17 16

EDUCATION

1986 1992 Colleges & Univers. 5 5 Seminarians 571 678 College Students 8850 9162 High School Students 35,377 31,947 Elementary School Students 82,695 70,016 Public School Students 237,120 237,000 Receiving Catholic Instruction

TEACHERS

1986 1992 Priests 125 122 Brothers 98 44 Sisters 850 533 Lay 3,600 4,198

CEREMONIAL

1986 1992 Baptisms 71,238 87,254 Catholic Marriages 9,927 10,790 Interfaith Marriages 2,674 2,401

POPULATION

1986 1992 Total Catholic Population 2,650,000 3,024,110* Total Three-County Population 9,027,775 9,917,582

* Unofficial estimates accounting for illegal immigrants place the number closer to 4 million

Mahony: The Issues

During his seven years as archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony has addressed a long list of issues, both inside and outside the Roman Catholic Church. Here are some of them:

AIDS

In keeping with official church policy, Mahony has insisted that chastity, rather than the use of condoms, is the only “morally correct and medically secure way” to prevent the spread of AIDS. The stance has brought protests from AIDS activists. The cardinal also received criticism from within the church when he sent a letter to elderly priests and nuns suggesting they consider participating in a test of an experimental AIDS vaccine. Last year, Mahony urged Catholics to boycott public television station KCET for airing a short film about a protest against the church’s policies on AIDS.

CATHOLIC EDUCATION

In an extraordinary effort to improve Catholic schools, Mahony has brought together some of the archdiocese’s most affluent and influential Catholics and created the Education Foundation. Headed by businessman Richard Riordan, the foundation has a fund-raising goal of $100 million.

CEMETERY WORKERS

In one of the nastiest clashes of his tenure, Mahony and union representatives fought for the hearts and minds of the archdiocese’s 140 gravediggers. The cemetery workers eventually rejected the union effort, but only after Mahony and local labor leaders traded insults and accused each other of dishonest tactics.

CHANCERY ADMINISTRATION

One of Mahony’s first acts was to reorganize the archdiocese’s archaic financial operations and to create five pastoral regions, each headed by an auxiliary bishop, to better serve the sprawling three-county see. He also convened an archdiocesan convocation, where religious and lay leaders set priorities for the archdiocese.

GANGS

During his first public Mass in Los Angeles after being elevated to the College of Cardinals last June, Mahony pledged that counteracting gangs and violence had become a top priority for the archdiocese. Since then, he has taken a high-profile role in promoting an interfaith effort called the “Hope in Youth Campaign,” which aims to reduce gang recruitment by placing family outreach teams in local congregations. Mahony is meeting with elected officials and business leaders to help raise money for the program.

GAYS

Following the dictates of the church’s so-called Ratzinger Letter, Mahony has barred priests from saying Mass for members of Dignity, a national organization for gay Catholics. The Ratzinger Letter spells out the church’s commitment to reach out to the gay community and help those suffering with AIDS, but it condemns “pro-homosexual” movements within the church and rebukes those gays and lesbians who are not celibate.

HOUSING

Mahony has helped lead an effort by a church-based development group to build a gated community in Bell Gardens of 132 condominiums and townhouses for low-income residents. The archdiocese has pledged $3 million toward the Nehemiah West project, and Mahony has supported other fund-raising efforts.

LATINO MINISTRY

About 50,000 worshipers filled Dodger Stadium in June, 1986, to celebrate the archdiocese’s kickoff of a far-reaching pastoral plan for the Latino Catholic community. Much of the multimillion-dollar plan has already been accomplished, including the creation of regional offices for immigration and citizenship and the celebration of Spanish-language Mass in most parishes. Last year, the archdiocese began publishing Vida Nueva, a “Catholic perspective” Spanish-language newspaper.

PORNOGRAPHY

During his first year in Los Angeles, Mahony asked Roman Catholics to picket 7-Eleven and other stores that carry Playboy, Penthouse and other sexually oriented magazines, and a year later, urged consumers to stop patronizing video stores that sell or rent X-rated movies. The efforts met limited success.

TV AND MOVIE CODE

In February, Mahony seemed to throw his support behind a new “decency code” on motion pictures and television, saying “Hollywood simply must stop glorifying evil.” He later backed off that support, saying he favors more wholesome film and TV productions but not through a decency code. He is now meeting “behind the scenes” with producers and writers to discourage gratuitous violence, promiscuity, nudity and profanity in productions.


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