L.A.’s Cardinal Mahony defends actions in abuse cases

LOS ANGELES — Responding to a public rebuke by his successor, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony insisted that he tried his best to deal with the priest molestation scandal but fell short because not enough was known about the problem early in his career.

In an extraordinary open letter to Archbishop Jose Gomez, Mahony insisted Friday that he ultimately instituted state-of-the-art protections against child sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He seemed to suggest that Gomez had acted unfairly by publicly announcing that he was stripping the cardinal of any public role in the local church.

“Not once over these past years did you ever raise any questions about our policies, practices or procedures in dealing with the problem of clergy sexual misconduct involving minors,” he wrote.

“Unfortunately, I cannot return now to the 1980s and reverse actions and decisions made then,” he added. “But when I retired as the active archbishop, I handed over to you an archdiocese that was second to none in protecting children and youth.”

Mahony posted the letter on his blog Friday afternoon, hours after he said he had sent it to Gomez.

In a letter Thursday to parishioners, Gomez announced that “effective immediately, I have informed Cardinal Mahony that he will no longer have any administrative or public duties.” The move came a week after the release of church records showing Mahony worked to conceal abusers from police in the 1980s.

The rebuke was largely symbolic, in no way diminishing Mahony’s powers as a cardinal _ a proverbial prince of the church who is part of a select group entitled to vote for the next pope. The symbolism, however, was powerful, sending shock waves through the churches and power centers of American Catholicism.

“In a sense what this is is a public shaming,” said Father Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest who teaches at Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center. “Symbols matter. … It’s a public acknowledgment by Gomez that his predecessor messed up. That’s important for the institution to do. Gomez can’t throw him in jail. I think he’s trying to symbolically show how seriously he’s taking this, even though the practical effect may be minimal.”

At churches throughout Los Angeles, Catholic parishioners absorbed the news on the day after Gomez acted against Mahony and released thousands of pages of personnel files about abusive priests. He described the behavior detailed in the files as “terribly sad and evil.” Gomez also announced that Bishop Thomas Curry of Santa Barbara, who previously played a key role in the handling of sex abuse cases, had stepped down.

“I was hoping it wasn’t true,” Ann Gapas said as she stood outside the downtown Cathedral of our Lady of the Angels, where she had come to pray. She had heard the news about Mahony on the radio the night before.

“Then I come here this morning and everything is so silent and the news vans are here. It’s so sad,” she said. Priests “are our role models and we respect them so much,” said Gapas, 71. “You always hope it’s not true.”

Another parishioner, Armando Zamora, said he believed Gomez was right to relieve Mahony of his duties. Mahony “should’ve been denouncing the abuse,” Zamora said in Spanish, “not covering it up.”

He added, however, that the sex abuse scandal didn’t shake his Catholic faith.

“That’s between me and him,” he said pointing at the sky. “But there should be consequences for the people who were in charge. We’re all human and make mistakes and should pay for them.”

In his letter, Mahony described his evolution as a leader overseeing priests who sometimes committed crimes against children.

“Nothing in my own background or education equipped me to deal with this grave problem,” he said. “In two years spent in graduate school earning a master’s degree in social work, no textbook and no lecture ever referred to the sexual abuse of children.”

Nevertheless, he insisted, once he was installed as archbishop in 1985, he quickly took action to deal with the problem, speaking to priests and developing “policies and procedures to guide all of us in dealing with allegations of sexual misconduct.” Those were adopted in 1989, he said.

When cases of abuse arose, he said, he relied on procedures that were “standard across the country” for Catholic dioceses. Although he didn’t specify the procedures, these largely involved mental health counseling for priests, who were often shifted to another parish without warning parishioners about their history of abuse. “We were never told that, in fact, following these procedures was not effective, and that perpetrators were incapable of being treated in such a way that they could safely pursue priestly ministry,” Mahony wrote.

After detailing the more advanced procedures he put in place in 2002, after the sexual abuse crisis had exploded nationwide, Mahony told Gomez: “I have stated time and time again that I made mistakes, especially in the mid-1980s. I apologized for those mistakes, and committed myself to make certain that the archdiocese was safe for everyone.”

Mahony posted the letter on his blog on the archdiocesan website, along with a note addressed to “Friends in Christ.” In the note, he said the letter was intended to explain “the history and context of what we have been through since the mid-1980s,” adding: “There is nothing confidential in my letter. I have been encouraged by others to publish it, so I am doing so on my personal blog. I hope you find it useful.”

Gomez, however, issued a statement late Friday saying: “Cardinal Mahony, as archbishop emeritus, and Bishop Curry, as auxiliary bishop, remain bishops in good standing in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, with full rights to celebrate the Holy Sacraments of the Church and to minister to the faithful without restriction.”

It was not clear precisely which duties Gomez relieved Mahony of performing. Tod Tamberg, a spokesman for Gomez, would not elaborate. Nicholas Cafardi, a canon law expert at the Duquesne University law school, said Gomez has the authority to stop Mahony from speaking publicly within the archdiocese of Los Angeles — but not to do much else. Given that, he said, Gomez’s actions may have been the strongest he could have taken.

“Cardinals are only able to be sanctioned by the Holy See, and what Archbishop Gomez did was not a sanction, it was an administrative action,” Cafardi said. He added that Gomez probably has no authority over the frequent speaking Mahony does on behalf of immigration rights around the nation. Moreover, he said, there is probably very little that Pope Benedict XVI can do to sanction Mahony. Any Vatican sanction against a cardinal requires a conviction under church law, and the statute of limitations would have run out on any crime that Mahony might have committed related to the sex abuse cases, he said.

The Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said the Holy See would have no comment on Gomez’s announcement. Asked if Gomez consulted with the pope before acting, Lombardi said: “Obviously, the pope is informed about the situation in Los Angeles, but I have no comment about the events.”