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Priests Stand Up to Cardinal on Budget

Archdiocese: After private meeting, several say the willingness to challenge Mahony over issues such as ministry funding marks a change.


Alarmed by deep cuts in ministry budgets and shaken by the church's response to the sexual abuse scandal, priests in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles confronted Cardinal Roger M. Mahony during a private meeting Monday, questioning his statements about the archdiocese's finances and urging him to restore funds for programs.

The statements came during an annual meeting with Mahony of 600 to 700 of the archdiocese's 1,200 active priests in Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. The willingness of many priests to challenge the cardinal on a range of issues marked a turning point in their relationship with the archdiocese, several priests said, although a spokesman for the archdiocese disputed that assertion.

Known as the Presbyteral Assembly, this year's session was held at the conference center of the new downtown Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angeles. The meeting was closed to the public and press, but several priests offered accounts of the discussions, generally doing so only on condition that they remain anonymous.

Calling Mahony's management style "paternalistic" and "unilateral," one group of priests challenged the archdiocese's assertion that the $4.3 million in budget cuts ordered last month had nothing to do with the $189.5-million cathedral, which was dedicated last month.

Strains Credibility

"It strains the credibility we have with our people when we dedicate a $189-million cathedral--rejoicing that it is fully funded--and, one week later, declare that 60 lay and religious employees must be let go because we have not planned wisely enough to raise the $4 million needed to fund their ministries to prisoners, ethnic minorities, gay and lesbian outreach, and religious education to children," Msgr. Timothy Dyer, pastor of Nativity Church in South Los Angeles, told Mahony.

As he read the prepared statement, a copy of which was provided to The Times, eight to 12 priests stood beside him to lend moral support.

Two other groups of priests rose during the meeting to protest cuts in the church's Latino ministry and its detention ministry for people in prison.

Mahony said he could not restore the cuts without hurting still other ministries, Tod Tamberg, the spokesman for the archdiocese, said afterward. Falling investment income from a downturn in the stock market and the need to plan for unknown future costs of sexual abuse cases resulted a budget "emergency," Tamberg said.

Some priests said that clergy in the archdiocese have in the past been notably less assertive in their relations with the hierarchy than their brethren in other cities, including Chicago and Boston. Tamberg disagreed, saying that Los Angeles priests have long been "straightforward" in their comments to Mahony, which he said Mahony has welcomed.

But "this has been a troubled year for everyone in the church. The cardinal has felt it and so have the priests," Tamberg said. "Certainly there are people who got up and said things that are very straightforward and very critical of the cardinal's leadership. The cardinal has let them speak, and where he needed to, made responses."

One priest, who spoke on condition that his name not be used, chose less diplomatic language. "We are practically at a gnashing-of-teeth place. There's a great deal of anger," the priest said.

"Everybody is kind of wondering what is going to happen next on so many levels. Finance is part of it. Morale is a significant issue. There is a feeling the priests just don't feel they can trust the church right now."

Burning Issues

A second priest, who also asked to remain anonymous, said Monday's meeting was unlike any in years past. "The urgency with which we have come together is different. There are burning issues before us."

In the weeks leading up to Monday's meeting, groups of priests began meeting among themselves and drafting statements to be presented to Mahony. In one case, a telephone conference call was set up to discuss cuts in prison ministries.

"We're usually lone rangers," a third priest said before the meeting.

"There exists at the present time a sense of distance from the archbishop," said another priest. He said Mahony must convince his priests "that he can continue to journey with us--not against us or over us--but with us."

Much of the talk at Monday's meeting involved budget cuts at the Archdiocesan Catholic Center, the headquarters office in the Mid-Wilshire district.

Msgr. David O'Connell, pastor of St. Francis X. Cabrini Church in South Los Angeles, said there had been little or no consultation with priests, priests councils, or regional bishops and laity in the nation's largest Roman Catholic archdiocese before the budget was cut. Seven ministry offices are being closed. Among them are ministries to ethnic groups, gays and lesbians, ecumenical and inter-religious affairs, as well as anti-abortion efforts and campus ministries at headquarters. The detention ministry headquarters staff, which serves prisoners, is being cut by half.

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