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As Cardinal Roger Mahony ends career, what legacy will people remember?

For many, his tenure has been tainted by ongoing clergy abuse scandal — first under his watch as bishop in Stockton, then as head of the L.A. archdiocese

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In this Dec. 3, 2006, file photo, Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, attends a Mass in the East Los Angeles College stadium.

Oliver O’Grady

Posted: Monday, February 28, 2011 6:37 am | Updated: 6:45 am, Mon Feb 28, 2011.

When Cardinal Roger Mahony was ordained nearly a half-century ago, the Roman Catholic Church was in the throes of a modernization and renewal — and the lanky young priest who grew up near his family’s poultry processing plant was seen as a leading liberal light for the times.

As a seminarian and young cleric, the Spanish-speaking Hollywood native celebrated Mass with Mexican field workers, worked with Cesar Chavez to fight for better farmworker conditions and was appointed auxiliary bishop of Fresno, the heart of California’s bread basket, at the tender age of 38.

Mahony retired Sunday and hopes to cement that legacy by dedicating himself full-time to the fight for immigration reform. For many, though, the cardinal’s career will instead be defined — and irreparably tainted — by a devastating clergy abuse scandal that unfolded on his watch, first as bishop of Stockton and then as head of nation’s largest archdiocese.

The scandal, which resulted in a $660 million settlement with more than 500 plaintiffs, proved to be the biggest erosion of Mahony’s authority in a church that had already shifted around him with a revived emphasis on orthodoxy and tradition. In his final years in Los Angeles, Mahony has been dogged by hundreds of lawsuits, criminal investigations into clergy abuse in the archdiocese and a bitter legal fight over sealed church files on some of the church’s worst abusive priests.

Even in his final days as archbishop, newly uncovered allegations against an aging priest refocused attention on Mahony’s role and forced the resignation of the archdiocese’s vicar for clergy. Still, Mahony managed to hang on, unlike Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned as Boston archbishop over his failure to stop predatory priests.

“In a very paradoxical way, you contrast him with Cardinal Law, and I wonder if there aren’t people in the Vatican who admired Mahony since he hung tough,” said James Hitchcock, a St. Louis University historian who studies American Catholicism. “No one circled the wagons like Mahony.”

Mahony declined repeated interview requests through his spokesman, Tod Tamberg. In response to e-mailed questions, Tamberg declined to comment on specific clergy abuse cases but said the cardinal does not remember the priest whose continued ministry led the vicar of clergy to resign earlier this month.

Entering the priesthood

When Mahony entered the priesthood, the biggest news in the church was not clergy sex abuse, but the landmark Second Vatican Council, a series of meetings convened in the 1960s to modernize the church. He advanced rapidly in the hierarchy, becoming bishop of Stockton in 1980 and archbishop of Los Angeles in 1985, and was elevated to cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 1991.

The decades of Mahony’s service defined an arc of dramatic change that saw the church shift from the more liberal attitudes of the 1960s to a centralized hierarchy under Pope John Paul II and a renewed embrace of tradition under Pope Benedict XVI. The selection of Archbishop Jose Gomez to take over after Mahony’s 75th birthday underscores those changes: Gomez is a member of Opus Dei, the influential group favored by Pope John Paul II that fiercely defends church orthodoxy and authority.

“Cardinal Mahony was certainly among a group of bishops, if you had to break in one direction or another following the Second Vatican Council, who were more open to changing things,” said Mark Brumley, chief executive of Ignatius Press and a former director of social ministries for the Diocese of San Diego. “I think as the church, we’re finding the right balance between continuity and change. Cardinal Mahony was more in the change direction.”

After being ordained in 1962, Mahony championed the cause of farmworkers as a young priest in Fresno, marching with Cesar Chavez, serving on the Mexican-American Council for Better Housing and leading the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board, where he oversaw the implementation of sweeping labor reforms for farmworkers.

He opposed an initiative that would have barred undocumented immigrants from most public services and supported legislation to allow them driver’s licenses. Last year, the cardinal stood on a truck bed and chanted “Si se puede!” at a Los Angeles rally to protest Arizona’s controversial immigration law.

The Catholic Education Foundation he founded in 1986 has given away more than $108 million in scholarships to disadvantaged children, said Tamberg.

“Over the years immigrant peoples have become very dear to me, and Jesus continues to call me to walk with them on their journey,” Mahony wrote to his archdiocese last month.

By focusing on immigration, Mahony has tapped a deep vein that’s critical to the future of the American Catholicism, said Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. Latinos account for much of the growth in the U.S. church in recent years and now comprise about a third of the nation’s 65 million Catholics. Gomez, who like his predecessors is expected to be named a cardinal, will be the highest-ranking Latino bishop in the United States.

“I think his legacy will be as a prophetic voice on the immigration issue, on the importance of the Hispanics to the Catholic Church in the U.S. and on social justice,” Reese said of Mahony. “This is where Jesus would be, on the side of the oppressed, on the side of the poor and on the side of those in need.”

Darker side of Mahony’s tenure

But Mahony’s tenure in the hierarchy of the U.S. church also has a darker side: the clergy sex abuse scandal that first found its way to his door in Stockton in the early 1980s and then followed him to Los Angeles.

As bishop in Stockton, Mahony transferred the Rev. Oliver O’Grady to a new parish after the priest admitted during a therapy session to sexually molesting a young child. Mahony made the transfer despite a psychiatric evaluation that indicated the priest was sexually immature and might not be fit for the priesthood.

O’Grady continued to molest children at his new post, according to lawsuits, and served seven years in prison before being deported to his native Ireland, where he was arrested late last year on child pornography charges. To date, the Stockton diocese has paid nearly $21 million to O’Grady’s alleged victims.

Tamberg declined to answer e-mailed questions about the O’Grady case, but in 2004 Mahony defended his decision, as reported by The Associated Press, saying that Stockton police “could not find any victim and they were not recommending any further steps be taken.”

Once in Los Angeles, Mahony did not contact police or warn parishioners after the Rev. Michael Baker told him at a retreat in 1986 that he had molested two young boys. In a deposition taken last year, Mahony said he didn’t alert anyone because the priest told him the children were illegal immigrants who had returned to Mexico.

After six months of treatment, Baker returned to a restricted ministry. The archdiocese has since paid millions to alleged victims of Baker, who pleaded guilty in 2007 to molestation and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Last year, he was called to testify before a federal grand jury investigating how the archdiocese handled claims of abuse.

Mahony has acknowledged mistakes in how he handled the Baker case in a church report about the clergy abuse scandal.

More than 500 plaintiffs who sued the church are still fighting in court to get access to the priests’ confidential church files but nearly four years after the settlement, the files have still not been released.

Ray Boucher, the lead plaintiff’s attorney, worked closely with Mahony to hammer out the record-breaking settlement and said the cardinal met personally with each victim who wanted to see him. At the time, Boucher said, he believed Mahony was sincere, but he now accuses the cardinal of stonewalling on the church files to protect himself from what they may reveal.

It’s an allegation that Tamberg, the archdiocese spokesman, says is baseless.

“I had the hope and faith that he had changed and he could be a significant voice within the church for reform and for openness and transparency. I did believe that he would be that voice and I think he’s betrayed that trust,” Boucher said. “It’s almost as if he had his fingers crossed and his hands behind his back.”

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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  • Kim Lee posted at 12:16 am on Wed, Mar 14, 2012.

    Kim Lee Posts: 1798


  • Steve Schmidt posted at 10:56 am on Wed, Mar 2, 2011.

    Steve Schmidt Posts: 2238


  • Darrell Baumbach posted at 6:34 pm on Tue, Mar 1, 2011.

    Darrell Baumbach Posts: 9403

    If you perceive this as "argument"... then it is a waste of time... I was seeking truth.
    I thought you had serious concerns and had information that I did not...
    you educating me and everyone else as to the evidence you have would be a public service... I was asking you to help in making me and others better informed... but you refused... and simply put me down... NP Steve. Just shows that you were being superficial and had nothing to offer but your opinion. Maybe you sould consider saying... if he did it... instead of... he did it. I would hate to have you as a juror on any trial of mine if you were convinced of guilt without substantial evidence.... I said that Mahony should have been prosecuted if he were guilty of what you descibe... and you still put me down... low class Steve.

  • Steve Schmidt posted at 5:16 pm on Tue, Mar 1, 2011.

    Steve Schmidt Posts: 2238

    Darrell, this isn't a subject I am going to argue with you about. I hope that you never have cause to be better informed about it. I will pray that God will bring you the wisdom to appreciate how wrong you are about this without visiting that horror upon you or your children.


  • Darrell Baumbach posted at 4:42 pm on Tue, Mar 1, 2011.

    Darrell Baumbach Posts: 9403

    Steve... my response was a direct response to your post. There has not been a trial and this man was convicted of nothing. I do not know that what you are saying is accurate or not. You stated this man is culpable because his decisions made it possible for another man to do the unthinkable. Maybe I am misunderstanding exactly what you are saying. Was there a trial that I am not aware of? Was he convicted?
    If you are saying that this man is culpable for others, fine… I do not know. I did not read the transcript that you have. I made the point about Bill Clinton because I believe he did worse that Mahoney. I think that it is the exact same situation People around him knew what he did, but did nothing to stop him because of who he was… they are just as culpable. I am not trying to make political points at all… I believe what I am stating. Just as I could be wrong about Clinton, I think you could be wrong about Mahony. If you would direct me to the trial and evidence that you somehow have access to, maybe I would draw a different conclusion. I am disappointed that you think I was trying to make political points… your accusation is too serious for that.

  • Steve Schmidt posted at 10:51 am on Tue, Mar 1, 2011.

    Steve Schmidt Posts: 2238

    Not everything is about trying to score political points. This is about kids who got raped right here in Lodi. This is about people that you probably know yourself. This is about a monster that ruined the lives of our brothers, our cousins and our friends.

    Darrell, I ask with all due respect that you step way back on this one and think a little about what you are saying.

  • Steve Schmidt posted at 10:46 am on Tue, Mar 1, 2011.

    Steve Schmidt Posts: 2238

    Darrell, this about kids who got raped right here in our town. It is not a political issue.

  • Darrell Baumbach posted at 2:25 am on Tue, Mar 1, 2011.

    Darrell Baumbach Posts: 9403

    Steve... I am not as knowledgeable in the specifics of this case as you and Jackson, enough to be judge, jury and executioner. I’ll leave the verdicts to you. From what I read, he has a liberal mind set. To me, not much difference between his and Bill Clinton’s behavior…both had positions of power, but Clinton directly took advantage of an intern and 5 women that we know of... and involved in rapes more than Mahony. Clinton is beloved and cherished and has become very wealthy. Maybe Mahoney’s mistake is that he associated himself with church and believes in god. If Mohoney did as you said, he should have been prosecuted… but until I see outrage over Clinton, who I thought should have been prosecuted, I view the lefts actions in Clintons case equally as culpable… they let Clinton continue his behavior for years… May I ask, do you see a difference? I am not a Catholic or religious so my view is not a defense of Catholics anywhere.

  • Jackson Scott posted at 7:23 pm on Mon, Feb 28, 2011.

    Jackson Scott Posts: 382

    One of my best friends was molested by O'Grady at St Annes.

    Mahoney covered it up & simply played a shell game of Padres by moving them to another parish. He knew exactly what he was doing, and he will be judged upon his death.

    What amazes me is how all of these "good Catholics" simply look the other way in Lodi. It's like it never existed to them. Talk about living in denial. I'm sure they've been buried with some more of the guilt-trip-head-games and told to say 10 Hail Mary's.

  • Steve Schmidt posted at 6:12 pm on Mon, Feb 28, 2011.

    Steve Schmidt Posts: 2238

    Darrell, the guy helped child molesters rape little kids. In the light of that crime, everything else is irrelevant.

  • Darrell Baumbach posted at 4:31 pm on Mon, Feb 28, 2011.

    Darrell Baumbach Posts: 9403

    Interesting Steve. Some people just can not win... here Mahoney has been considered a far left liberal thinker by most of the conservative church members. He has championed the Hispanic plight and been a proponent of immigration amnesty… I hope people who knew him ( I did not) contribute and speak for things he did that have value. Obviously your point is a concern, but maybe there is another side to the story as if anything, he has always been known in the liberal world as a friend.

  • Steve Schmidt posted at 11:11 am on Mon, Feb 28, 2011.

    Steve Schmidt Posts: 2238

    I imagine a few people will remember Mahony fondly but most will recall a monstrous criminal who aided and abetted unspeakable acts.

    The Bible tells us that such unrepentant evil doers will find justice in death, even if they manage to avoid it in life.



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