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Scandals in the Church: The Los Angeles Cardinal

50 Years Later, a Navigator on Rough Terrain


Msgr. Peter Nugent remembers the night, nearly 50 years ago, when he and the future Archbishop William J. Levada of San Francisco were stranded in a broken-down jalopy on a remote road in southern Mexico with another young seminarian, the future Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

"He organized the whole trip," Monsignor Nugent said. "He got us letters of introduction from local politicians; he figured out all the mechanics of the car. It was a much rougher trip in those days. There were bridges out. Two of us got sick. And then we found ourselves derailed in the middle of nowhere in the dark." The boldness that drove the young seminarian to recruit his wary friends into their tropical misadventure has stuck with Cardinal Mahoney as he emerged as a leading figure in the Roman Catholic Church. At the same time, the reputation he earned for successfully navigating controversies that have shaken other church leaders has also helped make him a pivotal figure in the church's current crisis over priestly sexual abuse -- despite criticism about his own handling of it at home.

"They call him the Teflon cardinal, and they are right to do so," said Arthur Jones, a former editor of The National Catholic Reporter.

The youngest of the nation's cardinals, at 66, Cardinal Mahony is frequently referred to as the most liberal voice in the church's conservative hierarchy. But the reality is more elusive.

"In fact, he is not theologically liberal at all," said Stephen J. Pope, the theology department chairman at Boston College. "On the hot-button issues, such as ordination of women or marriage for priests, he has never said the church should do anything more than talk about it. He's very pro-life. He's very conservative on sexual education in Los Angeles."

Thomas Fox, publisher of the National Catholic Reporter, put it another way: "Only in the context in which he is operating would he be considered a progressive."

Some point to the cardinal's habit of sometimes floating rather bold proposals and then pulling back from them, thus appearing to be more of a reformer than he actually is.

Recently, for instance, before American cardinals left to meet with Pope John Paul II in Rome on the sex-abuse crisis, Cardinal Mahony said he would urge the pope and other top church officials to consider allowing priests to marry and women to be ordained. But on Tuesday in Rome, the cardinal told reporters that he had not and would not mention those issues.

Many have noted a kind of dualism in the cardinal's approach to his post. He has been accused of making the archdiocese, with its 4.5 million members from 120 nationalities, increasingly corporate and remote. Yet the priests in the archdiocese, with whom he is said to be enormously popular, are allowed to call him "Roger."

The poorest members of his flock, particularly the Spanish-speaking immigrants who have flooded the archdiocese during his 17-year stewardship, revere him. Yet he is equally at ease with the richest Catholics, most notably as he pursues completion of the huge Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in downtown Los Angeles.

"He started out as a parish priest in Stockton," Mr. Jones said. "So he grew up with a flock of both migrant workers and wealthy landowners. He had to learn how to talk to both of them. If you are a C.E.O., which is what a cardinal is, you need to be adept at taking care of all the parties. And if there is one thing Cardinal Mahony is, it's adept."

He has had to be in recent weeks as the sex-abuse controversy, which first erupted in Boston, moved around the country and found purchase in Los Angeles. Cardinal Mahony was hit by recent disclosures that a Stockton priest imprisoned for molesting boys in 1993 had written a letter years earlier to then-Bishop Mahony thanking him for giving the priest another parish job, despite accusations of sexual abuse.

Earlier this month, some 50 e-mail messages between Cardinal Mahony and his top advisers were leaked to KFI, a Los Angeles radio station, which seemed to show diocese officials debating over how open to be with the authorities on the number and identifies of purported sexual abusers in the church.

The cardinal responded with a series of high-profile interviews promising to crack down on sexual abuse and said he was hard at work on new policies to combat it.

"The cardinal is very media savvy, there's no question about that," said Katherine Freberg, a lawyer in Irvine, Calif., who in the last four months has won settlements of $5.2 million and $1.2 million in sex abuse cases involving priests in Los Angeles and Orange County. "But it infuriates me, it really does, that Mahony has been able to emerge from this being seen by many as a reformer on the sex-abuse issue."

Adopted by an Irish Catholic couple who ran a chicken processing plant in North Hollywood, Cardinal Mahony has been, from the beginning, a creature of the American West. He first learned Spanish, friends say, from talking to workers in the chicken plant.

At the seminary, he and Monsignor Nugent, among others, formed a band that played Mexican folk songs to migrant workers. And midway through his training at St. John's Seminary College in Camarillo, Calif., when it came time to choose a diocese, he surprised many friends by picking rural Fresno over Los Angeles. "He said that he thought up there, he could be closer to the Mexican side of the ministry," Monsignor Nugent said.

Indeed, in his early years as a parish priest in Fresno, he became very active in the struggles of migrant workers, eventually befriending and supporting Cesar Chavez, the farmworker union leader.

Later, as auxiliary bishop of Fresno in in 1975, then bishop of Stockton in 1980 and archbishop of Los Angeles in 1985, he continued to stress not only social issues and outreach to Spanish-speaking Catholics, but also increased roles for lay members within the church.

This idea of expanding the power of lay people, particularly concerning changes in the liturgy to accommodate the church's increasingly diverse flock, has made Cardinal Mahony a target for conservative elements in the church.

"That fight made him something of a hero with theologians," Mr. Pope said.

It also proved heartening to moderate Catholics worried about growing right-wing voices in the church, Catholics who saw in Cardinal Mahony a successor to the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago as the American church's leading liberal voice.

Those who have known the cardinal over the years, describe him as a bit of a charmer, with a light-hearted wit and a passion for fixing things.

"He is never as happy as when he has a tool belt on," Mr. Jones said. "He keeps this cabin up in Mariposa County that he uses as a refuge. He hightails it up there and works on fix-it projects."

Most significant to Mr. Jones is the difference between Cardinal Mahony's operating style and that of the other American cardinals, none of whom are farther West than Chicago.

"He grew up in the West and he is a child of the milieu," Mr. Jones said. "He can be distant at times, he can be very chastising at times. But there is also a common touch. He's much more likely to eat at an El Pollo Loco or some other fast-food place than a fancy restaurant. He has a much easier, common touch than any other American cardinal displays."