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Star-Crossed Cathedral

Controversy has surrounded Our Lady of the Angels, and its scheduled opening threatens to increase the focus on larger problems in the Catholic Church


Even under the best of circumstances, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels looked as if it might be a tough sell. Rising above the Hollywood Freeway in downtown Los Angeles, the nearly $200-million edifice is an imposing mass of modern design, a resolutely 21st century building wedded to the tenets of an old and tradition-minded faith. Though some observers have praised the spare elegance of architect Jose Rafael Moneo's work, others have derided the cathedral's high price tag and lamented an austere, abstract style that has put some observers in mind of an industrial plant.

To its most persistent critics, the cathedral-in-progress epitomizes the egotism and arrogance of Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and the aloofness of a Roman Catholic archdiocese they felt had turned its back on its core mission by abandoning its former skid row location for a fancy new address. The weekly alternative newspaper New Times has dubbed it "the Taj Mahony," a phrase that has stuck in local op-ed pages.

Yet these controversies pale in comparison to the child sex-abuse scandal that's shaking the U.S. Catholic Church to its foundations. Now, with the cathedral's anticipated opening less than three months away, some believe that Our Lady of the Angels could become an embarrassingly high-profile focus for the larger problems of the Catholic Church. At best, they suggest, the cathedral may be seen as an unlucky victim of terrible timing, at worst as a costly 11-story fig leaf trying to camouflage the shame of its spiritual custodians.

"It's a compromised building as a consequence of the crisis in the church," says author D.J. Waldie, whose book "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" ( W.W. Norton, 1996) describes growing up Catholic in postwar Southern California. "It had been presented to Catholics in the diocese and to non-Catholics as well as a place of refuge, a bulwark, an encircling wall that would provide shelter. And now the question is, shelter for whom and shelter against what?"

Mark Silk, director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion In Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., says the main issue isn't the cathedral per se, but the man who has been its principal visionary and booster: Mahony. Since victims of alleged sexual abuse by priests began coming forward en masse in the past few months, it has been disclosed that more than 30 current or former L.A. priests in the archdiocese are under investigation by legal authorities. Mahony has been criticized for transferring a priest to other L.A. parishes after the priest had allegedly admitted to molesting young boys.

"I think if you were asking people who were paying close attention to this they would say, 'Well, Mahony's having some problems, but he's basically on the right side,' " Silk says. "The extent to which that's true and the extent to which that's true in September," when the cathedral is scheduled to be inaugurated will determine whether "the opening of the cathedral is attended with celebrations or with picketing."

Church's Urgent Issues

Part of what makes the cathedral's situation unusual, some say, is that it is virtually critic-proof.The cathedral and its owners are not directly answerable to popular will or external political pressures.

No matter what additional misdeeds may be revealed in the coming weeks, no one is likely to demand that the cathedral opening should be canceled and the new building disassembled and sold off in pieces to pay victims' compensation. On the contrary, the cathedral looks as physically solid as Fort Knox, having been engineered to withstand anything short of a catastrophic earthquake. (St. Vibiana, the cathedral's predecessor, was severely damaged by the Northridge earthquake.)

Mahony has expressed hope that the cathedral will endure for several hundred years. "The building cannot be effaced," says Waldie. "Its dedication cannot be effaced."

But just because the cathedral will probably be around for a long time doesn't make the issues surrounding it now any less urgent. "In an institution that's 2,000 years old, all present views are short views," says Waldie. "One often hears Rome saying, 'This too shall pass, and given 250 years, 500 years, it will all seem not of consequence.' That ought not to diminish our realization that every small element, every small brick in the wall connects to that history, to that long history."

Others, without minimizing the seriousness of the pedophilia scandal, question how much it will taint or detract from the cathedral's opening, which had been scheduled to be marked with several days of celebrations.

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