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Mahony’s statements on Nunez cross the line

Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez announced in February that he was “ready to buck my church” and push legislation allowing terminally ill people to speed up their deaths with lethal drugs. But he wasn’t ready for this -- not from holy leaders.

The church is bucking back and looking like an ugly old political attack dog.

We’re seeing a collision of church and state, both of which serve society best -- with all our religious diversity -- when they operate separately. As the nation’s founders planned.

You may have read Cardinal Roger M. Mahony’s comments about the L.A. Democrat while speaking to 250 worshippers Monday at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels:

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“We should be troubled that Fabian Nunez, who has worshipped here in this cathedral as a Catholic, somehow has not understood and grasped the culture of life, but has allowed himself to get into this other direction, the culture of death.”

Culture of death? That’s political bean ball. Not even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tosses such words at President Bush.

Doesn’t grasp the culture of life? Nunez has a solid record of trying to improve the quality of life for poor people: the elderly and disabled, the medically uninsured, minimum wage earners and the same illegal immigrants Mahony long has championed.

“I have a lot of respect for the cardinal, but I’m deeply disappointed in his comments,” Nunez said in a telephone interview from Paris, where he and other legislators are spending the Easter recess, having been invited there by the French government to study high-speed rail.

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“Those comments hit me pretty hard. They weren’t just harsh. They were extreme and dogmatic.

“I support the ‘culture of death?’ I don’t even support the death penalty.”

Nunez said that he couldn’t tell whether the cardinal “believes I should be kicked out of the church. I’m not going to say I’m leaving the church today or tomorrow, but I’ve got to reflect on all of this.”

The speaker observed, “I’m not a regular Sunday churchgoer, but I am Catholic.”

He’s a Catholic who also bucks his church -- at least its leadership -- on abortion rights and same-sex marriage, both of which he supports.

Nunez had another run-in with the church recently while having breakfast with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in a Boyle Heights restaurant. One woman came up and said she’d learned at worship from Msgr. John Moretta that Nunez was “a killer,” the speaker reported, adding that fliers depicting him as favoring suicide have been handed out at churches all over his legislative district.

Villaraigosa declined to talk about the incident. But a mayoral aide confirmed that “there was a heated conversation. Some folks got a little personal questioning Nunez about his personal faith.”

That wasn’t the end of it. Moretta sent Nunez a letter Monday stating, in part:

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“Some of my parishioners, as you know, ran into you and Antonio at breakfast.... I was surprised that when they told you I had spoken at Mass about your authorship of this suicide bill, Antonio mentioned that this was a case of separation of church and state. That’s a bunch of bull. And you and he know better. You would never want to see a church that was morally neutral, a church that showed no moral leadership.”

And he concluded with this: “I would wish you a happy Easter, but that is a celebration of life. You are attaching your name forever to death.”

Bunch of bull? Attached to death? Sounds less like a monsignor than a “Sopranos” crime boss.

And anyone in the church hierarchy is on shaky ground these days when lecturing about moral leadership.

This seems a good spot to insert the obligatory reminder -- not that anyone needs reminding -- about the church that long tolerated pedophile priests. About the cardinal who misled -- the polite word -- his parishioners regarding a priest’s criminal assaults on children. And the nation’s largest archdiocese that is paying 45 sexual abuse victims $60 million and still faces at least 500 more claims.

“Why aren’t they taking care of their own shop?” asks Assemblywoman Patty Berg (D-Eureka). “Know what I mean? Makes me nuts.”

Berg, who was raised a Catholic and still considers herself one, is the lead author of what she calls the “Compassionate Choices Act,” along with Nunez and Assemblyman Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys). Berg and other supporters reject the term “assisted suicide” because, she says, “suicide implies that you can live.” Also, the word “suicide” tends to be a pejorative.

The bill, AB 374, would allow mentally competent people with less than six months to live to get a doctor’s prescription for lethal drugs that they could administer themselves. It is modeled after a law approved by Oregon voters. Since it took effect in 1998, only 292 people, at last count, have used the law to end their lives.

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Similar “death with dignity” bills failed to reach either the California Assembly or Senate floors the last two years. Nunez’s cosponsorship this year is seen as a big boost. The measure recently cleared the Assembly Judiciary Committee on a party line vote: Democrats for, Republicans against. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has not taken a position but says it’s the sort of issue that voters should decide.

The Field Poll consistently has found strong voter support for the notion in California, even among Catholics and Latinos.

But veteran Democratic political consultant Bill Carrick says it’s still politically “risky” for Nunez to get into a fight with Mahony on anything.

“The cardinal has got a great capacity to communicate with people every Sunday,” Carrick says. “I’ve always said he has the best field organization in L.A.”

Nunez, however, feels hurt. “I felt I had a good relationship with the cardinal,” he says. “This puts a big strain in our friendship. It’s a serious accusation he’s making of me. I don’t take it lightly.”

Here’s my suggestion for the speaker: Buck back by introducing a bill to reexamine the tax-exempt status of church property. That could potentially pay for a lot of children’s healthcare.

George Skelton writes Monday and Thursday. Reach him at george.skelton@latimes.com.


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