Big red hat for a Latino?

Bishop Jose H. Gomez, ordained by Opus Dei, a conservative Catholic organization favored by the Vatican, was named to lead a predominantly Hispanic archdiocese. The pope chose Gomez to succeed a retiring 25-year archbishop seen in many ways as a legend among progressives -- but also a prelate who faced scrutiny over his handling of clergy sexual abuse cases and questions over what some critics labeled his shaky moral theology.

I am referring, of course, to what happened five years ago when Gomez succeeded San Antonio Archbishop Patrick Flores, the nation's first Mexican-American bishop, who spent a quarter-century as spiritual leader for the Alamo City's roughly 700,000 Roman Catholics.

But I just as easily could be talking about Tuesday's news: Pope Benedict XVI tapped Gomez, a Mexican-born archbishop who could become the first Latino cardinal in the U.S., as coadjutor for Los Angeles. That puts him in line to follow Cardinal Roger Mahony, the current archbishop for L.A.'s 4.3 million Catholics, when Mahony retires next February.

Gomez's appointment in Los Angeles -- "the biggest prize in the American church," according to a blogger quoted by the Los Angeles Times -- is big news. I haven't had time to read all the coverage, but what I have seen in the Times -- L.A. and New York versions -- as well as The Associated Press and San Antonio Express-News seems to focus on the three key themes named above:

1. The significance of Gomez's appointment to Hispanic church members, who make up more than one-third of the 65 million Catholics in the United States. AP described it as "the Holy See's most significant acknowledgment to date of the growing importance of Latinos in the American church."

2. Gomez's ties to Opus Dei and his strong defense of traditional Catholic doctrine (the L.A. Times reported that he "adheres to Benedict's traditional notions about Catholic theology." Notions? Hmmm, doesn't seem like quite the right word when referring to the pope).

3. The clergy sexual abuse scandal. All the stories I have read note that Mahony agreed in 2007 to a record-setting $660 million settlement with more than 500 alleged victims of abuse. Most of the stories also quote victims' advocates in San Antonio alleging that Gomez himself has mishandled abuse cases there.

The L.A. Times put it this way:

Critics, largely from the community of Catholic sex abuse victims, said Gomez had been overly lenient with several priests accused of sexual abuse in San Antonio.

"With Gomez, the pope is promoting a bishop with a troubling record of recent secrecy and risk regarding child safety," said Barbara Garcia Boehland of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "If the pope is trying to convince us he's 'tough' on abuse, he's shooting himself in the foot by elevating Gomez."

The N.Y. Times had this:

At his first news conference as the archbishop-designate, at the city's modern downtown Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels on Tuesday, Archbishop Gomez did not seem eager to engage repeated questions, many in Spanish, about the scandal, its impact on Catholics and accusations made by victims' advocacy groups that he mishandled abusive priests in his former archdiocese.

And the Express-News included this:

Gomez said he'll seek input from Mahony, but he plans to provide protections and help for victims of sex abuse by priests.

Two representatives of a local victims group protested outside the chancery Tuesday and warned Gomez would follow the company line in Los Angeles.

"If the pope is trying to convince us he's 'tough' on abuse, he's shooting himself in the foot by elevating Gomez," said Barbara Garcia Boehland, local chapter president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Such claims against Gomez interest me because I covered his appointment as San Antonio archbishop. Shortly before leaving AP in 2005, I traveled to San Antonio and interviewed Gomez. I spent time with him driving around San Antonio and accompanied him to a couple of Masses where he introduced himself to parishioners. One story I wrote noted his predecessor's troubles with the abuse scandal:

But Flores' tenure was sometimes rocky.

His handling of clergy sexual abuse cases drew criticism from some victims' relatives. Flores apologized for not doing more in the past to protect children against abuse from clergy members, but critics said he did not show enough compassion.

In other words, Gomez started his work in San Antonio with a fresh slate and, one would presume, full knowledge of past problems. He began his tenure as archbishop after the Boston Globe investigation on clergy abuse that won a Pulitzer Prize, after the bishops' big 2002 meeting in Dallas that addressed sex abuse and after the statute of limitations ran out on claiming ignorance as a defense for mishandling abuse cases.

So if indeed Gomez has a poor record on dealing with abuse cases in San Antonio, then that is big news that needs to be reported fully. However, none of the stories I read contained any concrete facts or detailed explanations concerning cases in which Gomez has been involved. These charges certainly seem to merit further examination by reporters to determine the true facts.

There is undoubtedly much more that could -- and should -- be said about the coverage of Gomez's appointment, but that's my quick take and I'll leave it at that for now. If you want to take shots at him, please provide URLs to the mainstream sources of your information.

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