The Teflon cardinal


At first glance, it seems difficult to imagine how Cardinal Roger M. Mahony can survive the pedophile scandal. Far from putting the matter to rest, the $660-million settlement that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles has agreed to pay the victims of the abuse -- child rape, alas, is often the more accurate term -- can only lead to further wonder, and worry, about the cardinal’s conduct throughout the course of the scandal.

By his own admission, Mahony decided not to inform the police when he learned what was going on, and, indeed, he allowed the most predatory of the priests to return to their ministries after treatment programs the cardinal himself now concedes were ineffective. Saying, as he now does, that he wishes that the victims’ lives were like “VHS tapes” that could be rewound to a point before the crimes were committed seems like an extraordinarily self-exculpating way of describing what went on. And skeptics can surely be forgiven for wondering why the archdiocese decided to settle only a few days before Mahony would have been obliged to testify in open court.

Catholic Church: An essay in the July 22 Opinion section about Cardinal Roger M. Mahony referred to him as an Irish immigrant. Mahony is of German and Italian heritage. His father was adopted as a boy by an Irish American family with the last name Mahony.

And yet, however grotesque it may appear to those who are understandably unwilling to forgive Mahony for what he now concedes were grievous errors, my guess is that he will survive relatively unscathed in his position -- unlike, say, his counterpart Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, a prince of the church who had to be removed from office by the Vatican and transferred to virtual exile in Rome. Indeed, Mahony is not only likely to remain in office but can be expected to do so with his power and his moral authority among the overwhelming majority of his parishioners largely intact.

How to account for the “Teflon” quality of L.A.'s cardinal? In large measure, the answer lies in the enormous changes in the Catholic Church in the United States in recent years -- changes whose ground zero is to be found in the Los Angeles Archdiocese. Above all, this means the deepening Latinoization of the L.A. flock and Mahony’s role as perhaps the most powerful friend Latino immigrants have, not just in the Catholic Church but in the country as a whole.


Anyone who has any sense at all of Roman Catholic America knows how fundamentally the church has changed over the last several decades. Once largely composed of people with European roots, the church now increasingly serves Latinos, both immigrant and native-born. Nationally, Latinos account for 39% of the Catholic population. In Los Angeles, the archdiocese estimates that Latinos make up more than 70% of the total Catholic population. It is a huge increase both proportionally and in absolute numbers, and is almost entirely attributable to the vast and continuing immigration from Mexico and Central America of the last three decades. Demography is destiny, and it is simply a fact that the fate of the Catholic Church in the United States is now bound up with the destiny of these immigrants and their children and grandchildren.

Understandably, this transformation has been enormously complicated for the church, whose hierarchy is still dominated by the descendants of Italian, Polish and, above all, Irish immigrants like Mahony himself. What distinguishes Mahony, however, is that since his days as a seminarian, he has thrown in his lot with the Latin Americanized Roman Catholicism whose center has always been Southern California (even if it is now a nationwide phenomenon).

Many of the cardinal’s critics, appalled by his conduct throughout the pedophile scandal, have argued that his continual focus on immigrant issues and his emphasis on the Latino community have been part of a cynical effort to change the subject from the ongoing coverup. But Mahony’s involvement with Latino issues long predates his rise to eminence within the church.

In fact, he has been remarkably consistent from his early days as a seminarian in the 1950s, when he ministered to Latino farm workers in Ventura County, to his days as a priest intimately involved in Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers movement, to his time heading former Gov. Jerry Brown’s California Agricultural Labor Relations Board, to his time as bishop of Stockton in the 1980s, to his current activism on behalf of immigrant rights and labor rights (issues that in Southern California are inextricably linked).

Indeed, Mahony, who was born in Hollywood in 1936, and whose father ran a poultry processing plant that even in the 1940s employed mostly Latino workers, once told me about a raid of the factory by border patrol agents. “These guys came in with guns drawn as if a bank robbery was taking place,” recalled Mahony, who was a kid working in the factory at the time. “And the way they treated people! It was as if they were dirt. Even now, I can close my eyes and see it as if it were yesterday. From that day forward, I believe my life and that of immigrants have been intertwined.”

Far from resisting it, Mahony has welcomed the growing Latino nature of the church. Certainly no L.A. Latino was surprised when the cardinal participated in the huge pro-immigrant rally last spring (wearing not his usual cardinal’s garb but a T-shirt that read “We Are America” in English, Spanish and Korean). He even tacitly encouraged parishes to involve themselves in the planning for the demonstration. As a result, the affection and respect in which Mahony is held in Latino Los Angeles is enormous and is unlikely to be shaken even by the pedophile scandal. To the contrary, “Rogelio” Mahony, as he is known in East L.A., will almost certainly retain the allegiance of the vast majority of his parishioners.

It is this fact that explains the difference in the way the church sex abuse crisis has played out in L.A. and the way it has played out in cities like Boston. As a shrewd lay Catholic friend of mine in Los Angeles pointed out to me recently, in Boston there eventually was organized lay opposition beyond that of victims organizations -- and that was what finally made Cardinal Law’s position untenable. In the end, Law also lost the allegiance of many of his own parish priests. Nothing could be further from Mahony’s situation.

When I spent six weeks reporting a long story last year on Mahony and the Catholic Church in L.A., not one Latino Catholic I spoke to at parish churches all over the city raised the sex abuse issue. Despite criticism of the cardinal from Anglo parts of town (Catholic and non-Catholic alike), the fact is that, like it or not, the pedophile scandal is simply not a central issue in most L.A. parishes.

Should it be otherwise, given the fact that the scandal is all too real? In considerable measure, this depends on who you are. Undoubtedly, many Latino Catholics are dismayed by the scandal, many of whose victims and perpetrators were Latino themselves. But Latinos in general and immigrants in particular have found a powerful champion in Mahony at a time when the powerful are more given to immigrant-bashing than to compassion or solidarity.

Viewed from this perspective, it should not be surprising if Mahony’s congregants overwhelmingly choose to forgive him for what he did and did not do. Mature self-interest dictates nothing less. Whether Mahony failed to deal with the troubled priests, whose depredations he ignored for so long because it was a distraction from these social issues he deemed more important, is of course something only the cardinal could tell us. And with the settlement having relieved him of that obligation, he is unlikely ever to do so.

David Rieff is the author of many books, including “At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention” and “A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis.”