Today was Cardinal Roger Mahony’s last day as head of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He turned 75 today, and the pope chose to let Mahony step aside rather than he keep him around after the standard retirement age for bishops.
Mahony retires Sunday and hopes to cement that legacy by dedicating himself fulltime to the fight for immigration reform. For many, though, the cardinal’s career will instead be defined — and irreparably tainted — by a devastating clergy abuse scandal that unfolded on his watch, first as bishop of Stockton and then as head of nation’s largest archdiocese.
The scandal, which resulted in a $660 million settlement with more than 500 plaintiffs, proved to be the biggest erosion of Mahony’s authority in a church that had already shifted around him with a revived emphasis on orthodoxy and tradition. In his final years in Los Angeles, Mahony has been dogged by hundreds of lawsuits, criminal investigations into clergy abuse in the archdiocese and a bitter legal fight over sealed church files on some of the church’s worst abusive priests.
Even in his final days as archbishop, newly uncovered allegations against an aging priest refocused attention on Mahony’s role and forced the resignation of the archdiocese’s vicar for clergy. Still, Mahony managed to hang on, unlike Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned as Boston archbishop over his failure to stop predatory priests.
“In a very paradoxical way, you contrast him with Cardinal Law, and I wonder if there aren’t people in the Vatican who admired Mahony since he hung tough,” said James Hitchcock, a St. Louis University historian who studies American Catholicism. “No one circled the wagons like Mahony.”
So true. For those who covered the clergy sex abuse scandal, it was always difficult to understand how the circumstances could be so similar for Mahony and Law and yet the consequences so dissimilar.