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TURMOIL IN THE CHURCH

In the Crucible, Mahony Takes Control of Message

After a defensive start, the Los Angeles diocese's media-savvy cardinal is getting high marks for confronting abuse and presenting himself as a reformer.

April 28, 2002|BETH SHUSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"I regret terribly what happened--but maybe without that or something like that we wouldn't be here."

"I wish I could undo some of the things in the past myself, [but] now it's really a chance to look to the future--from today forward."

*

Vivendi Universal chief executive Jean-Marie Messier on the dismal performance of the company's stock? Disney Chairman Michael Eisner on his poor ABC television ratings?

Neither. These are the words of Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, head of the largest Roman Catholic diocese in the country.

He is church leader and CEO, pastor and politician. And just as leaders of private corporations sometimes find themselves, he is involved in a crisis of damage control that tests his ability to simultaneously navigate the worlds of church doctrine and secular society.

The proliferating cases of sexual abuse by priests that were ignored or covered up by bishops and cardinals in past decades have put every American leader of the church on the defensive. Last week's meeting of American cardinals and Vatican officials on the issue gave Mahony, 66, his greatest media exposure and a welcome change from a posture of defensiveness.

Several weeks ago, about 50 of Mahony's private e-mails to his inner circle were leaked to the media, providing fuel for stories that questioned his sense of urgency about dealing with cases of priestly abuse.

The trip to Vatican City gave Mahony the opportunity to present himself as a reformer, and even his critics were impressed, if not convinced. Before he left for Rome, a week ago, he met with the media to outline his agenda for the extraordinary meetings with Pope John Paul II and other Vatican officials. He talked about the need to discuss such controversial issues as celibacy, the ordination of women and homosexuality in the church--carefully avoiding taking a stand in favor of any particular policy.

In Rome, he appeared on national news programs, morning and evening shows, conducted interviews with the national press and held a media briefing for the hometown press. His statements in favor of stronger procedures to fire errant priests were made in the tone of someone who recognized his organization had a problem and was determined to fix it. Unspoken was the fact that some of the reforms in Mahony's own archdiocese were the result not of his doing, but rather of compliance with a 2001 court-approved settlement of a molestation lawsuit.

David Clohessy, national director of the Chicago-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, contends Mahony has "escaped the scrutiny that many of his colleagues have been under because he is very, very media savvy."

A Temporary Reprieve for U.S. Cardinals

Clohessy said the cardinals who went to Rome avoided scrutiny only temporarily. "The sad truth is, they have to not only come back home but come back to Earth and deal with this enormous backlog of pain and denial and cover-up and unresolved issues around abusive priests."

Indeed, upon his return to Los Angeles, Mahony was confronted with the arrest of a Pomona priest. Other sex-abuse cases against his clerics still are under investigation.

Several of the cardinals left Rome for a Mass and dinner for Catholic University of America in Philadelphia on Friday. But Mahony said he needed to return swiftly to Los Angeles, where he conducted a whirlwind series of interviews with the print and broadcast media and sent out letters about his trip to all the parishes in his three-county diocese--with copies of the pope's statement attached.

Mahony, the youngest American cardinal, gets high marks for his handling of the crisis from some of his political allies in the city, who are themselves familiar with damage control.

"I think it's an incredibly tough thing for a leader to handle," said former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a friend of Mahony's, a Catholic and a veteran of managing crises. "The press is all over you; any time you say anything, it opens the door to other stories. You have to be very careful. I think he's been very much on top of this."

Riordan said he breakfasted with Mahony days before his trip and was impressed that each time he offered a strategic consideration, Mahony said he had already thought of it.

Seeking Advice, Consulting PR Firm

When his e-mails were released in the press, Mahony refused to comment. Instead, his lawyers went to court to try to prevent The Times from publishing them. That effort failed. Friends and associates say he then consulted them, appearing to take advice from different sources on how to proceed. Two weeks ago he went to a major public relations firm, Weber Shandwick, to craft the message that would serve him in the weeks ahead.

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