Ethics Institutions

Did anything really change for Cardinal Mahony?

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

(RNS) The quake that hit Los Angeles last Thursday (Jan. 31) was an ecclesiastical one, but still pretty earth-shaking for the Catholic Church: After the release of thousands of secret personnel files detailing decades of sexual abuse of children by clergy, Archbishop Jose Gomez publicly rebuked his predecessor, Cardinal Roger Mahony, and stripped him of his official duties.

But here’s the question: Did anything really change for the embattled cardinal?

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. (RNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz)

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. (RNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz)

“The behavior described in these files is terribly sad and evil,” Gomez said in a statement, adding: “Effective immediately, I have informed Cardinal Mahony that he will no longer have any administrative or public duties.”

(Gomez also announced 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.)

Much of the information in the files was known or suspected, but the archdiocese had waged a lengthy and contentious legal battle to keep ugly details of the cover-ups secret. The church lost, and the 12,000 pages of documents graphically demonstrated how Mahony, who headed the Los Angeles archdiocese from 1985 to 2011, sought to conceal the abuse from authorities.

A response from Gomez, who was sent by Pope Benedict XVI to relieve Mahony in 2010, was inevitable. But such an action against such a high-ranking prelate — taken by his own successor no less — was “unprecedented,” as several media outlets put it.

Some wrote that Mahony was “barred from public ministry,” the term used for the action taken against priests credibly accused of molesting children. It’s a severe penalty that means they cannot celebrate Mass in public or wear clerical dress or even present themselves as a priest.

Gomez, a conservative associated with Opus Dei, was widely praised for his courage, even by church progressives who would normally have been allies of Mahony’s. The prevailing wisdom was that Gomez’s response was an indication that at least part of the hierarchy had turned a corner in policing its own culpable members.

In hindsight, however, it’s not clear if anything changed for Mahony, or that this was anything more than a spitting contest between two high-ranking churchmen.

The first indication that Gomez’s pronouncement was less than it first appeared was a clarification early Friday morning by longtime archdiocesan spokesman Tod Tamberg in response to initial news reports. He noted that as a retired archbishop, Mahony in fact had no administrative duties, so Gomez’s injunction on that score had no teeth. Indeed, canon law explicitly says that a cardinal’s authority is universal and cannot be curtailed by any bishop except the pope.

Tamberg also noted that Mahony remained a “priest in good standing” and that his day-to-day activities would not change. The cardinal would not be presiding at confirmation rites, Tamberg said, but as one local priest put it, confirmations are not popular tasks so “this is hardly a severe punishment!”

At the same time, in Rome, the Vatican’s spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, seemed to distance the pope from the battle in America’s largest archdiocese. Lombardi told reporters that the issue was being handled by Gomez, and that anything Gomez did would not affect the “other duties assigned by the pope to Cardinal Mahony in the Curia.”

In other words, Mahony, who turns 77 later this month, would still be eligible to vote in a conclave for a new pope, and as a cardinal would still be considered a “prince of the church” and a top adviser to the pontiff.

A few hours later, Mahony himself upped the ante by publishing on his personal blog a sharply worded private letter that he had sent to Gomez, defending his track record and pointedly writing that Gomez had known everything about the secret documents for three years and never took any action until they became public last week.

By late Friday, Gomez was forced to issue a statement under his own name stating that Mahony – as well as Curry – remained “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.”

Gomez is still being praised for his original statement, but church insiders have quietly been expressing dismay at how the episode unfolded. Others are arguing that Mahony — a media-savvy churchman and an early adopter of digital technology — appears to have outmaneuvered Gomez on this one.

More than anything, that may show that Mahony’s influence, like his ecclesiastical authority, is undiminished.

As Los Angeles columnist and longtime Mahony critic Steve Lopez put it: “A priest in good standing? What in the world do you have to do to fall out of favor?”

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.


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  • Cardinal Mahony (who should be prosecuted for covering up sex crimes against innocent kids) is still a cardinal and still vote for or become the pope. Just as convicted criminal Bishop Finn is also still “a priest in good standing”, who is running the KC diocese.

    They make up their own rules.. which is so disturbingly sad for all the victims of clergy sex abuse and for the protection of children.

    Keep in mind, the LA Archdiocese is not unique in how they handle sex crimes against kids. Each bishop/cardinal answers only to the pope. Outside law enforcement needs to get involved and investigated for crimes against humanity.

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

  • Had the files not been made public would gomez have said anything ever? or would he just continue being part of the cover up?

  • “The cardinal would not be presiding at confirmation rites, Tamberg said, but as one local priest put it, confirmations are not popular tasks so ‘this is hardly a severe punishment!'”

    Who’s the source? Confirmations of young people are the one time a year the faithful are just about guaranteed to see and hear from one of their bishops, and a “teachable moment” for the young that most bishops I know relish. It appears Mr. Gibson is deliberately understating this effect of Archbishop Gomez’s decision.

  • Change? He’ll disappear in the night and appear as a new archpriest in Rome with a palatial apartment, a servant staff, and a large stipend.

  • Archbishop Gomez may well have had this info under his hat, but didn’t move until the legal battle over the files was completed. I’m disinclined to criticize his timing. But he deserves no praise for doing what any of the rest of us might do. He’s mostly untouchable in this episode–the Vatican can’t act without triggering a PR disaster.

    More of the same. The bishops see moral responsibility as ending when they remove a predator and place him in treatment. If he falls off the wagon, it’s his moral dilemma, not the Church’s. The logic is clear, but seriously flawed. But it seems to be what Rome and its pocket episcopacy are running with. Talk about a lack of a sense of sin.

  • We all know what you have to do to fall out of favor: support women’s ordination, married priests or (worse!) mess with their money.

  • Confirmations are about as popular as weddings. Most priests I know dread, not the sacrament but the horrors that go along with it: the pushy mothers, the dads jockeying to get photos, the lay staff who all must have their own way, the battles over the music, and the half dressed brides and confirmadi… no, it’s hardly a punishment for Cardinal Mahony not to have to go through anymore.

  • And what of the children they bring into the world?
    I often wonder why there’s no voice from the belfry on that subject, possibly because they all have skeletons in their own closets!

  • I left the church over 30 years ago (at 16) because I could see the hypocracy of men who tell lies branded in their conscience.(1Tim.4) These crimes and cover-ups hadn’t yet come to light. I can’t fathom how ANYONE could still be a Catholic… How BLIND or DULL-WITTED do you have to be to NOT SEE this institution doesn’t have God’s spirit or approval! Jesus himself said, “By their fruits you will know these men…” (Matt.7:15-20) 15 “Be on the watch for the false prophets that come to YOU in sheep’s covering, but inside they are ravenous wolves. 16 By their fruits YOU will recognize them. Never do people gather grapes from thorns or figs from thistles, do they? 17 Likewise every good tree produces fine fruit, but every rotten tree produces worthless fruit; 18 a good tree cannot bear worthless fruit, neither can a rotten tree produce fine fruit. 19 Every tree not producing fine fruit gets cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Really, then, by their fruits YOU will recognize those [men].