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Roger Mahony leaves a mixed legacy

Once seen as a possible candidate for pope, the cardinal's career was derailed by the church sex scandal.

February 23, 2011|By Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles Times
  • Cardinal Roger Mahony is retiring after 25 years as head of the Los Angeles Archdiocese, the largest Catholic diocese in the country.
Cardinal Roger Mahony is retiring after 25 years as head of the Los Angeles… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)

In 1995, a book by a veteran Vatican-watcher took a crack at the ultimate Roman Catholic parlor game: Guessing the identity of the next pope. Only one North American made the list — a long shot, to be sure, but someone who seemed to represent the future of the Catholic Church in the United States.

That lone American was Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles.

By the time Pope John Paul II died 10 years later, Mahony was no longer being discussed as papabile — capable of becoming pope — not even as the longest of long shots.

A lot had happened in the intervening decade.

Mahony, who retires in the coming week as head of the Los Angeles Archdiocese, leaves a legacy that church historians will puzzle over for years. Once a shining star — perhaps the shining star — of the American church, his reputation suffered from his handling of a devastating sexual abuse scandal that shattered the lives and trust of many Catholics and led to the largest civil settlement by any archdiocese, a staggering $660million.

Yet such were Mahony's strengths that he remains respected, even beloved, by many in his flock who see him as fiercely devoted to social justice, willing to fight for progressive reforms in the church and motivated by a lifelong passion for easing the burdens faced by Latino immigrants. He also kept the archdiocese from financial collapse after the sex abuse settlement, an achievement that required tough and sometimes unpopular decisions.

"I would say that, in the minds of historians in the future, they will look back on these 25 years as some very creative years, where the growth of the archdiocese was shepherded ably by him," said Msgr. Craig Cox, the rector of St. John's Seminary in Camarillo. "Certainly times of controversy and tension, without a doubt, but I think that history will look kindly on him."

"Basically, I think the man was good," said Mike Crowley, a retired teacher, coach and former Catholic seminarian who paused at the door of St. Mary Magdalen Church in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood after Mass recently. "He did the best job he possibly could under the circumstances."

Whether through bad luck, bad timing or bad judgment, Mahony may always be viewed through that filter.

When he hands over the Los Angeles Archdiocese to its new archbishop, Jose Gomez, it will be a far larger, more inclusive and arguably more robust church than he inherited from his predecessor, Cardinal Timothy Manning. But it will be a church that has suffered, and paid, for its failings.

Even some of Mahony's harshest critics speak of him with disappointment more than disdain.

"When you go back, the dichotomy there is, you have his stance for immigrants, his stance for peace, his stance on being a voice for the downtrodden and the poor," said John C. Manly, a Newport Beach attorney who has represented many victims of sexual abuse by priests. "That's what a priest is supposed to do. And the great tragedy is, if he hadn't … let these children be hurt, he could speak with moral authority on these things. And yet he squandered that moral authority, and for what?"

Sunday marks Mahony's 75th birthday, the usual time for a Catholic archbishop to retire. Two "ceremonies of transition" are scheduled that day at the downtown Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, although the actual transition will depend on the timing of a letter from Pope Benedict XVI.

Although he is retiring as archbishop, Mahony will continue to hold the title of cardinal and is likely to take on short-term assignments from Rome. In a letter to parishioners last month, he said he is "eager to give more emphasis to my ministry as a priest — celebrating the Eucharist as needed, hearing confessions, as well as having more time for hospital visits."

Until he turns 80, he will be allowed to participate in the next conclave to choose a pope.

Mahony scheduled an interview with a Times reporter for this article, then canceled after The Times refused to agree to restrictions on how it could use his remarks, including the possibility of running a transcript of the interview online. The archdiocese has long complained about the newspaper's coverage, which it views as unfair and disrespectful to Mahony. (His opponents have said the opposite.)

Mahony's 25-year episcopate will be remembered for many accomplishments. Responding to a shortage of priests, he sharply increased the roles of the laity and women in the church. Recognizing that the archdiocese was so large as to be nearly unmanageable, he divided it into five regions, each led by a bishop.

He is credited with improvements in fiscal accounting and with creating organizations —Together in Mission and the Catholic Education Foundation — that raised millions of dollars to support low-income students and parishes.

In assessing the Mahony legacy, however, three primary issues stand out.

Social justice

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