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Roger Mahony leaves a mixed legacy

In 1995, a book by a veteran Vatican-watcher took a crack at the ultimate Roman Catholic parlor game: Guessing the identity of the next pope. Only one North American made the list — a long shot, to be sure, but someone who seemed to represent the future of the Catholic Church in the United States.

That lone American was Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles.

By the time Pope John Paul II died 10 years later, Mahony was no longer being discussed as papabile — capable of becoming pope — not even as the longest of long shots.

A lot had happened in the intervening decade.

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Mahony, who retires in the coming week as head of the Los Angeles Archdiocese, leaves a legacy that church historians will puzzle over for years. Once a shining star — perhaps the shining star — of the American church, his reputation suffered from his handling of a devastating sexual abuse scandal that shattered the lives and trust of many Catholics and led to the largest civil settlement by any archdiocese, a staggering $660million.

Yet such were Mahony’s strengths that he remains respected, even beloved, by many in his flock who see him as fiercely devoted to social justice, willing to fight for progressive reforms in the church and motivated by a lifelong passion for easing the burdens faced by Latino immigrants. He also kept the archdiocese from financial collapse after the sex abuse settlement, an achievement that required tough and sometimes unpopular decisions.

“I would say that, in the minds of historians in the future, they will look back on these 25 years as some very creative years, where the growth of the archdiocese was shepherded ably by him,” said Msgr. Craig Cox, the rector of St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo. “Certainly times of controversy and tension, without a doubt, but I think that history will look kindly on him.”

“Basically, I think the man was good,” said Mike Crowley, a retired teacher, coach and former Catholic seminarian who paused at the door of St. Mary Magdalen Church in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood after Mass recently. “He did the best job he possibly could under the circumstances.”

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Whether through bad luck, bad timing or bad judgment, Mahony may always be viewed through that filter.

When he hands over the Los Angeles Archdiocese to its new archbishop, Jose Gomez, it will be a far larger, more inclusive and arguably more robust church than he inherited from his predecessor, Cardinal Timothy Manning. But it will be a church that has suffered, and paid, for its failings.

Even some of Mahony’s harshest critics speak of him with disappointment more than disdain.

“When you go back, the dichotomy there is, you have his stance for immigrants, his stance for peace, his stance on being a voice for the downtrodden and the poor,” said John C. Manly, a Newport Beach attorney who has represented many victims of sexual abuse by priests. “That’s what a priest is supposed to do. And the great tragedy is, if he hadn’t … let these children be hurt, he could speak with moral authority on these things. And yet he squandered that moral authority, and for what?”

Sunday marks Mahony’s 75th birthday, the usual time for a Catholic archbishop to retire. Two “ceremonies of transition” are scheduled that day at the downtown Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, although the actual transition will depend on the timing of a letter from Pope Benedict XVI.

Although he is retiring as archbishop, Mahony will continue to hold the title of cardinal and is likely to take on short-term assignments from Rome. In a letter to parishioners last month, he said he is “eager to give more emphasis to my ministry as a priest — celebrating the Eucharist as needed, hearing confessions, as well as having more time for hospital visits.”

Until he turns 80, he will be allowed to participate in the next conclave to choose a pope.

Mahony scheduled an interview with a Times reporter for this article, then canceled after The Times refused to agree to restrictions on how it could use his remarks, including the possibility of running a transcript of the interview online. The archdiocese has long complained about the newspaper’s coverage, which it views as unfair and disrespectful to Mahony. (His opponents have said the opposite.)

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Mahony’s 25-year episcopate will be remembered for many accomplishments. Responding to a shortage of priests, he sharply increased the roles of the laity and women in the church. Recognizing that the archdiocese was so large as to be nearly unmanageable, he divided it into five regions, each led by a bishop.

He is credited with improvements in fiscal accounting and with creating organizations —Together in Mission and the Catholic Education Foundation — that raised millions of dollars to support low-income students and parishes.

In assessing the Mahony legacy, however, three primary issues stand out.

Social justice

By all accounts, Mahony found his calling in childhood, when he developed a kinship with Mexican laborers on his father’s poultry farm. At St. John’s Seminary, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was known for tagging along with priests on visits to nearby camps of braceros, or Mexican migrant workers.

Mahony was supposed to begin his priesthood in Los Angeles but realized he wouldn’t find many such workers in the big city, his seminary classmate Gerald Fallon recalled. So the young priest engineered a swap with another student who was assigned to the rural diocese of Monterey-Fresno.

It didn’t look like a wise career move for anyone with higher aspirations in the church. Once in Fresno, Mahony embraced the cause of Cesar Chavez and his campaign to organize farmworkers, and he soon developed a national reputation as a champion of immigrant laborers. It was a cause he never abandoned.

Mahony was “really a prophetic voice in the area of social justice, immigration and concern for Hispanics,” said Father Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center. “I think this is where his heart was, this is where he saw the importance of the Gospel message being proclaimed in a way that showed Christ’s concern for the poor, the marginalized, those in need.”

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The cathedral

When the 1994 Northridge earthquake severely damaged the century-old St. Vibiana Cathedral, Mahony began planning for construction of a new cathedral that could properly serve the nation’s largest Catholic population.

A battle ensued. Opponents said the millions of dollars intended to build the new church should instead be spent on the poor. By the time construction began at a site on Grand Avenue in 1998, critics were in full cry, denouncing the size, scale, opulence, cost and architecture of the modernist cathedral, designed by renowned Spanish architect Rafael Moneo.

“Spend God’s Money on God’s Poor,” pleaded the headline of a newspaper published by the leftist Catholic Worker organization.

Mahony justified the expense at a 1995 news conference: “Every great city in the world with a Catholic heritage has a dynamic and functional cathedral at the heart of its central core. Los Angeles will be no exception as the archdiocese plans ahead for a new millennium.”

Once the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels opened in 2002, at a final cost of $189 million, criticism grew more muted. Many praised the new building, designed to be one foot longer than St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, the grande dame of American cathedrals.

The ultimate verdict will take decades — if not centuries.

“Time is on the side of a cathedral if it’s really an impressive and well-done building, and I think L.A.'s is,” said Archbishop George Niederauer of San Francisco, a friend of Mahony’s since seminary. “People will forget the controversies … and I think it will be a much-beloved edifice, more and more.”

Sexual abuse

“He joined a crowd of bishops who mishandled that,” summed up Father Gerald Fogarty, a University of Virginia history professor who is a Jesuit and expert on American Catholicism.

Sexual abuse by priests was rarely discussed when Mahony became archbishop in 1985, and the church’s typical response was to send an offending cleric to therapy and assign him to a different parish.

The first Los Angeles case to draw much public attention came to light in 1988, when a priest suspected of molesting at least 18 altar boys at a parish in El Sereno was relieved of his duties by the archdiocese, which waited two days to notify police. By then, the priest had fled the country.

The floodgates opened in 2002. As case after case came to light — hundreds, ultimately — Mahony apologized repeatedly and instituted measures aimed at preventing future crimes. He acknowledged in one case that he had erred by transferring a priest accused of child molestation to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center without informing hospital officials of the allegations.

But he continued to battle prosecutors who sought church records about alleged abusers, and he was dogged by questions about his handling of the problem until the last days before his retirement announcement, when the archdiocese was embarrassed by revelations that a priest who had admitted to a series of sexual encounters with an underage high school student in the 1960s had not only kept his job, but in 1996 was appointed to the archdiocese’s sexual abuse advisory board.

The priest, Father Martin O’Loghlen, was among those honored for 50 years of priesthood in this year’s official Los Angeles Catholic Directory.

Archdiocese spokesman Tod Tamberg said Mahony “told me he does not remember Father O’Loghlen.” The priest was removed from his duties at a San Dimas parish this month after the New York Times published an article detailing his history.

Mahony’s supporters say he handled the sexual abuse crisis as well as he could.

“He had the bad luck of being appointed a bishop at a very young age,” said Reese, of Georgetown, “so he became a bishop back when the church really didn’t know how to deal with the sex abuse crisis, and he was young enough that he had to live through it all.”

His detractors, and there are many, see more than bad luck at work.

“That he has accomplished a lot of good for a lot of people for a long time is undeniable,” said Jeff Anderson, one of the most prominent of the attorneys representing abuse victims. “But … when it comes to this issue, it remains and will be a stain on his legacy.”

Mahony’s friends voice empathy tinged with regret.

“He inherited a situation that nobody had predicted,” said former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a confidant throughout Mahony’s tenure.

“He did as good a job as you can do … but obviously people are going to remember him more for that, which is sad.”

mitchell.landsberg@latimes.com


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