Beliefs Ethics Institutions

Retired Los Angeles cardinal punished over abuse revelations

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles stands outside St. Joseph's Church in New York following an ecumenical prayer service presided over by Pope Benedict XVI in 2008. Photo by Gregory A. Shemitz
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(RNS) Retired Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony was relieved of all public and administrative duties for his role in the clergy sex abuse scandal. RNS photo by Gregory Shemitz.

(RNS) Retired Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony has been stripped of his official duties in an unusual public rebuke by his successor that followed the release of thousands of pages of internal church documents showing how Mahony and aides for years conspired to cover up the sexual abuse of children by clergy.

The current archbishop of Los Angeles, Jose Gomez, also announced late Thursday (Jan. 31) that Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Curry, a longtime aide to Mahony who was deeply involved in the cover-up, had resigned his position overseeing the Santa Barbara region.

“I find these files to be brutal and painful reading. The behavior described in these files is terribly sad and evil,” Gomez said in a statement.

Gomez issued his statement after the archdiocese lost a long legal battle and posted on its website personnel files for 122 priests who were accused of molesting children.

“There is no excuse, no explaining away what happened to these children,” Gomez said. “The priests involved had the duty to be their spiritual fathers and they failed.”

In 2011, Pope Benedict XVI named Gomez to replace the embattled Mahony atop the nation’s largest Catholic diocese.

Gomez noted that Mahony had apologized for his role in concealing the abuse and allowing it to continue, but he indicated that was not sufficient – and that he ordered Mahony’s removal from public ministry.

“Effective immediately, I have informed Cardinal Mahony that he will no longer have any administrative or public duties,” Gomez said. He added that Curry had requested to resign.

“This is unusual and extraordinary,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and political scientist at Georgetown University. “An archbishop has never before restricted the ministry of his predecessor and publicly taken him to task like this.”

Mahony did not seem to appreciate the move. On Friday morning on his personal blog, the cardinal posted a private letter he had sent to Gomez in which he explained and defended his track record on abuse. Mahony pointedly noted that Gomez had known everything about the archdiocese’s efforts on abuse since arriving in 2010 as he prepared to take over from Mahony.

“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,” Mahony concluded.

Reese said that Gomez’s censure of Mahony shows that “the abuse crisis is now having consequences not just for the abusing priests but also for the clerics who did not deal with them properly,” he added.

But victims’ advocates were skeptical of the moves, noting that they came only after the archdiocese lost a five-year legal battle to keep the documents secret or to release only edited versions.

“The lesson here for Catholic staff is clear: if you successfully conceal your wrongdoing, you can keep your job. If, however, you fail, there’s an extraordinarily slim chance you might experience some slight consequences,” said David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

“Gomez has had these documents for months and known about Mahony’s wrongdoing long before now. And yet Mahony has continued to be an honored prelate and prince of the church,” said Terence McKiernan, head of BishopAccountability.org, also a leading advocacy group on behalf of clergy abuse victims.

“The difference is that now the people have access to evidence of Mahony’s misdeeds,” McKiernan said. “Sadly, we see the church acting ethically in these matters only when its actions become known.”

Critics also noted that Mahony, who turns 77 later this month, is retired, and Curry, 70, is an assistant bishop with a much lower profile. And Bishop Robert W. Finn of Missouri, who was convicted last September of failing to report a priest suspected of abuse to authorities, has remained in office and unpunished by the church despite his unprecedented guilty plea.

Still, the action by Gomez against Mahony is surprising and nearly unprecedented. Church observers say Gomez must have had clearance from Rome for such a move, and the Vatican’s spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Friday that “the Vatican is aware of the Los Angeles diocese’s latest decisions but this matter is in the hands of the local archbishop.”

But the developments still raise many questions – one being Mahony’s exact standing in the church now.

Under the policies of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, priests who are credibly accused of abuse are barred from public ministry, which means that even if they are not defrocked they cannot say Mass in public or wear their clerical dress or present themselves as a cleric.

Archdiocesan spokesman Tod Tamberg said that is not the case with Mahony. Tamberg said he “remains a priest in good standing, and a cardinal of the church. He can celebrate the sacraments with no restrictions.”

Tamberg said that Mahony, who lives at a North Hollywood parish, has canceled his schedule of confirmation Masses and is reducing his speaking engagements around the country; Mahony has lectured widely on immigration issues and the future of the church since retiring in March 2011. Mahony remains eligible to vote for a new pope until he turns 80, in three years.

At the Vatican, Lombardi noted that the suspension does not affect the “other duties assigned by the pope to Cardinal Mahony in the Curia.”

Jerry Filteau of the National Catholic Reporter also noted that the church’s Code of Canon Law gives cardinals a privileged position and even says that they are “exempt from the power of governance of the bishop of the diocese in which they are residing.”

“While that law does not clearly exempt cardinals from all decisions on local ecclesiastical activity, it sets an unusually high bar against banning a cardinal from engaging in church activities in the diocese where he resides,” Filteau wrote.

The Los Angeles case inverts some of the usual assumptions about church politics in that Mahony, who was archbishop from 1985 to 2011 and a cardinal since 1991, was known as something of a liberal in the hierarchy, advocating for immigration reform and economic justice issues.

Gomez, on the other hand, is associated with the conservative Opus Dei society and is seen as a loyal defender of orthodoxy.

But Gomez is also a more low-key personality than Mahony, and is widely respected as an honest broker when it comes to issues like clergy abuse. He has also earned a reputation for speaking out about social justice issues.

(Alessandro Speciale contributed to this report from Rome.)

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.

17 Comments

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  • The Catholic Church has been corrupt and abusive for 2,000 years. It will never change until lay people end all financial support to the Church. Only then will they get the attention of the Church’s unspeakably pompous hierarchy.

  • As a priest as well as being a victim of clergy sexual abuse the actions of Bishop Gomez are too little, and too late.

    When I experienced my flashback in the fall of 2001 I was totally unaware of what was brewing in Boston. While I am a Boston priest, I had served in the USN as a chaplain and had retired in 1997. I chose NOT to return to Boston — I did not know exactly why, but I knew I was not comfortable there. What kept me from returning was the slow realization that I had been raped.

    The theology training I had received in the seminary has me “intimately” associated with the hierarchy. Theologically I am an “extension of” the bishop (or apostle.) In essence I am one of them in that I represent all that they say and do. After my flashback I went into counseling. I struggled to remain in ministry but it was becoming harder and harder. Each day that I read about Mahony’s antics in the courtroom trying to evade the release of information or documents pushed me into a corner. I could no longer represent the bishops. I could no longer be a part of their conspiracy, their deception, their cruelty.

    In November 2005 I contacted the Archdiocese of Boston and requested “retirement.” I flew to Boston to meet with Bishop Lennon and within fifteen minutes was granted medical leave. I never did hear from O’Malley. I thought, surely, a priest struggling with remaining in active ministry would be worth a few minutes of his time – but that did not happen. I was scheduled to leave my assignment as chaplain at the Washington Hospital Center on 1 June 2006. On Tuesday of Holy Week I made the announcement at noon Mass in the chapel, and I explained “why” I would be leaving. Within hours I was reported to the Diocese of Washington and I was IMMEDIATELY relieved of my faculties, in short, I WAS FIRED for speaking the truth.

    And so, thanks to the likes of Mahony, George, Todd, Brown and all the others, I languish outside of Ministry that I so enjoyed. As I said earlier, this “banishment” of Mahony is too little, too late. Now, had the vatican stripped him of the title “Cardinal” I MIGHT have a different attitude – but then, what about all the others??

  • So am I to believe that during the last 6 years while the Church has been fighting the release of these documents, Gomez had no knowledge of what was in them. Am I to believe he woke up today, looked at the released docs and said “OMG I guess I should do something about this – I had no idea.” REALLY! That’s what I’m supposed to believe? The sad fact is he is only taken this action because of the public pressure being placed on him because the public now sees these documents. Gomez needs to be relieved of his duties as well because of negligence since he took the office of bishop.

  • Finally the ugly truth is being exposed, finally the victims may feel validation, and finally these church officials might be held responsible for covering these sex crimes, so that no other child is sexually abused again.

    But this is curious…..How is it possible that Cardinal Mahony (who deserves to be prosecuted for covering up sex crimes against innocent kids) can be removed of his duties.?….And yet convicted criminal KC Bishop Finn can not..?

    They make up their own rules.. which is so sad for all the victims of clergy sex abuse..Keep in mind, the LA Archdiocese is not unique in how they handle sex crimes against kids.

    Judy Jones, SNAP Midwest Associate Director, 636-433-2511. [email protected],
    (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests)

  • Almost every other bishop in the world has done the same! Why aren’t the others punished both by their church and by civil justice authorities? In the United States, only one has even been charged, also found guilty, and his punishment was only the proverbial slap on the wrist.

    Shame on any such organization that claims to be a proponent of Jesus of the gospels! The Catholic Church has been guilty of its own proclaimed sins, and also of hideous public crimes.

    The lay people are fools for allowing their bishops to trash their precious dollars to pay the legal cost of cover-up. What about the morality of any lawyers who would defend such sins and crimes and the organizations that promote them?

    Such evils are as sufficient as the Crusades, indulgences, false relics, and the Inquisitions to turn anyone away from religion and churches. These are the very hypocrisies against which Jesus fought in his own Jewish religion–and for which he was nailed to a cross.

    For the majority of diocesan administrators, it is nothing but filthy politics, and that goes all the way to the Vatican that is being so silent again about the sex scandal while its celibates spend their time and the lay people’s money trying to control other people’s sex habits and child bearing.

    President Obama has again given into religionists by expanding permission for them to dictate the sex lives of everyone else, even when they can’t control their own. Is the president also our legislative branch of government? Do his monarchical decisions match those of the Catholic monarch in the Vatican?

  • Is this only the result of appointing a social worker as ordinary of a diocese, or is it the long tradition of cover-up of the sins and crimes of the officialdom of the Catholic Church? After all, when we study that church’s history, both before and after the Reformation, we see these practices have always been at work since Constantine, a non-Christian till his death bed, by the way, politicized that religion for his own imperial advantage by calling the Council of Nicaea in 325?

    That is when bishops became members of the royalty, and the papacy remains the last surviving monarchy with any real power in the western world. The pointed miters of bishops are crowns. The extreme evangelicals in this country have joined in that behavior, trying to replace what should be our constitutional system with their selective biblical law.

    Just consider how civil justice systems of other nations, including the United States, have been afraid to move against the clerical sex scandal of the Vatican City State. We have sacrificed children to the sinful crimes of that church’s clergy. Only one bishop has received a slap on the wrist in this country for managing cover-up. They continue to parade in pompous ceremony, pretending to be other than they are.

    Finally, Bishop Gomez took more slap-on-the-wrist action against Mahony, but it appears he had no choice in order to save face after court orders for disclosure. You can be sure that he did not act without first consulting his bosses in the Vatican. It has become very obvious that is the way of the hierarchical system of the Catholic Church. That’s the way of politics. That’s the way of royalty. It is not the way of Jesus. Sadly, it is also too much the way of what we continue to proclaim as democracy in this country. Has a single Wall St. criminal been prosecuted?

  • Am thankful to see Mahoney and Curry get caught. now for the Jesuits and franciscans and other reliigious orders and their leaders who did the same and thru their cover ups and stone walling and retaliation against victims and victims families put millions of catholic and other children at risk..Put the American public and International children and public at risk of sexual assault by their predators who they allowed to be free ..

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