LATimes asks some of the crucial Cardinal Mahony questions

If you were going to design a Catholic cardinal (as opposed to an Episcopal Church bishop) who would please the powers that be at The Los Angeles Times, that man would have to look a whole lot like Cardinal Roger Mahony.

Obviously, Mahony never tossed out the basic doctrines of the Catholic faith. However, he was also never anxious to step on the toes of liberal Catholics who leaned in that direction. Meanwhile, he was one of the princes of the church that doctrinally conservative (and politically conservative) Catholics most loved to hate and it was easy to see that the cardinal felt the same way about them.

Cardinal Mahony took over in 1985 and his progressive Catholic resume grew year after year. He was a strong voice on Latino issues and immigration. After the Los Angeles riots, he was the voice of moral authority seeking peace and economic justice. He was one of the first people Al Gore would see when he hit town to talk about the environment. He spoke out early and often on the death penalty, labor conditions and nuclear disarmament. He was the driving force behind the massive, postmodern, all-but-interfaith Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels that cost $189 million and infuriated liturgical traditionalists (and some on the economic left) who called it the "Taj Mahony."

As a stunning Times profile put it earlier this month:

Where his predecessors had talked up praying the rosary, Mahony touted his positions on nuclear disarmament and Middle East peace, porn on cable TV and AIDS prevention. No issue seemed outside his purview: When an earthquake struck El Salvador, he cut a $100,000 check. When a 7-year-old went missing in South Pasadena, he wrote her Protestant parents a consoling letter.

Reporters took notes and the influential took heed. The mayor, the governor, business executives and millionaires recognized a rising star and sought his company.

Among the thousands of papers that crossed his desk in September 1986 was a handwritten letter.

"During priests' retreat ... you provided us with an invitation to talk to you about a shadow that some of us might have," Father Michael Baker wrote. "I would like to take you up on that invitation."

The note would come to define Mahony's legacy more than any public stance he took or powerful friend he made.

In other words, there was a bomb ticking during the entire Mahony era. That bomb, of course, was the hidden cost -- personal, spiritual and financial -- of the scandal rooted in the sexual abuse of children and teens by Catholic clergy under the control of the cardinal.

This massive Times piece does a very, very solid job of charting the sweep of the scandal, using the sickening case of Father Michael Baker as the connecting thread.

The documents in the scandal are outlined and dissected. It's easy to see why Mahony was such a symbolic figure, in part because his tenure in Los Angeles began precisely at the start of the clergy-abuse-scandal headlines. His career arc, notes the Times, aligns perfectly with the whole scandal era and he was still in power when everything came crashing down, with the release of the massive secret files stashed away by his staff.

Yes, this is the rare piece that actually begins at the beginning, not with the headlines in Boston.

... In 1985, after a molester priest caused a scandal in Louisiana, U.S. bishops held a closed-door session on abuse at their annual conference.

Mahony and other bishops subsequently received a lengthy report warning of the legal and public relations ramifications of abuse and offering tips for dealing with such cases. The report, written by a priest, a psychiatrist and a lawyer, presented the topic in a risk-analysis manner appealing to pragmatists like Mahony.

"Our dependence in the past on Roman Catholic judges and attorneys protecting the Diocese and clerics is GONE," the report said.

The key lawyer behind that report stressed that it was time for Catholic officials to start leveling with police and reporting accusations against abusers, rather than continuing to hide them. Mahony didn't do that for many years.

What the Times editors never really ask, in this otherwise gripping feature, is a basic question: Why?

Why keep sending the "Father Fondle" priests -- the nickname used by police -- to "treatment centers" that kept sending abusers back into parish work? Why deny requests from authorities for lists of altar boys who may have been able to serve as witnesses? Why hide a priest who had sex with an AIDS patient and then had sex with high-school students? Why ship priest after priest out of the state or even out of the United States?

The following passage is as close as the Times team comes to analyzing Mahony's unique standing as a progressive Catholic leader, as the man many called the cardinal of Hollywood.

Manila folders alphabetized by abusers' names contained letters from distraught parents, graphic confessions from priests, and memos between the archbishop and his aides discussing how to stymie police investigations and avoid lawsuits. To Mahony, the meticulous files were a record of problems solved and scandals averted. In the years to come, however, it would become increasingly hard -- and finally impossible -- to keep the problem of sexual abuse locked away.

Revelations that he had shielded pedophiles eventually undercut the moral authority that had made him one of America's most important Catholic leaders. One by one, people who had revered and trusted him would turn away. He lost the victims and their parents first, then his aides, the press, the political establishment, lay Catholics and ultimately the church he'd worked so hard to protect.

Yes, eventually Mahony even lost the support of the press.

In the end, the Boston meltdown in 2001 turned up the heat and Mahony -- privately -- because to take appropriate actions to protect the innocent. By 2004 he was even taking public actions to do the right thing. When he retired, he struggled to maintain as much power and prestige as he could, even lashing when his successor, Archbishop Jose Gomez, wrote a letter to the faithful criticizing Mahony for his failure to deal with abusers.

As I have said many times, the clergy-abuse scandal was not and is not a left vs. right story, because there was plenty of sin on both sides of the cultural and doctrinal divisions that torment Catholicism in America. All kinds of people had all kinds of secrets.

However, the Mahony case was an important one for all of the reasons mentioned by the Times team. But was it harder for some journalists to believe that this man, this archbishop, was on the wrong side of this issue? After all, for so many journalists, he had been on the correct side of so many other issues in the past.

This is a fine, must-read piece in so many ways. But the leaders of the Times needed to ask a few more questions.

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