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The Mission Is on a Mission 

And Cardinal Mahony has been its target for years

Wednesday, Apr 10 2002
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DISCLOSURES ABOUT PEDOPHILIA among Catholic priests have, for the first time, become front-page fodder in newspapers around the country. And locally, readers are now learning about allegations that Cardinal Roger Mahony, one of the city's most powerful and revered figures, covered up the case of a pedophilic pastor while serving as bishop of Stockton.

But for readers of the Los Angeles Lay Catholic Mission, such stories are old news.

The Mission, a scrappy religious monthly, has only 20 pages and a claimed circulation of 20,000. Its layout is more 19th century than 21st, but it's got the attention of the archdiocese, which apparently worries that the Mission's stories, disclosures and accusations carry a currency as never before for affecting mainstream public opinion.

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Take, for example, the case of Father Oliver O'Grady. In July 1998, a Stockton jury awarded two brothers, James and Joh Howard, $30 million in damages -- then the largest judgmnet of its kind -- for years of molestation by O'Grady, their family priest.

The plaintiffs and other witnesses contended during the trial that, in 1985, Roger Mahony, then the bishop of Stockton, knew or should have known that O'Grady had previously molested parishioners -- and that Mahony's files included a police report and two psychiatrists' evaluations of O'Grady. But instead of being fired or removed from contact with children, O'Grady was reassigned to another parish, where he committed more molestations before being arrested, tried and convicted. Last year, upon his release from prison, O'Grady was deported to his native Ireland.

The Stockton media, of course, and some other newspapers reported the O'Grady verdict, but the case went almost unnoticed by the Los Angeles press, except for a 1995 Los Angeles Times article mentioning that Mahony was a witness in the lawsuit. A 1998 story, picked up from the Associated Press news wire, failed to mention the cardinal.

The Mission, by contrast, was all over the story, including alleged links to Mahony, in its July and September 1998 editions, which relied heavily on reports published in Stockton. "According to former Stockton police officer Jerry Cranston," the Mission recounted in 1998, "a year before Mahony ended his five-year stint as bishop of Stockton, the diocese's attorney persuaded police to drop child molestation charges against O'Grady."

THE ARCHDIOCESE DID NOT RETURN calls from the Weekly, but for years, the Chancery's policy has been to ignore the Mission. However, a series of recent e-mails within Mahony's brain trust, which were leaked last week, betray internal concerns. Among other things, the e-mails acknowledge that a writer for the Mission was asking questions about Carmelite Crespi High School in Encino, where the head of the school was recently removed amid allegations that he molested minors in the 1970s.

In the e-mails, archdiocesan attorneys seem to be debating whether to remove another priest, Father Peter Liuzzi, the former head of the archdiocese's prestigious Gay and Lesbian Ministry, from his teaching post at the all-male Encino school. The attorneys were apparently worried that the Mission would exacerbate a public- relations crisis by dragging in Liuzzi, a gay priest who teaches a one-hour course. Liuzzi has never been the subject of molestation allegations.

Liuzzi, noted the e-mail, "is gay and the Catholic Mission (the off the wall right wing throwaway newspaper) has been gunning for him for years."

The e-mails underscore that the Mission is hardly progressive when it comes to tolerance or politics. Its March issue profiles a teacher who warns of a homosexual "take-over" in schools and that curricular materials in Los Angeles "urge children to visit a homosexual pornography store" where there are "books about gays in the military and their sexual experiences." The article also airs claims that school- district materials encourage sex between adults and minors, including gay sex.

THE MISSION'S STAFF, ACCORDING to editor Christopher Zehnder, is made up of orthodox conservatives who believe that the cardinal has turned his church into a warm and fuzzy hybrid dominated by New Age Catholicism. Zehnder, a 37-year-old former teacher, writes most of the paper from his home in Tehachapi, where he also edits freelance submissions.

The Mission began in 1994, running mostly features, but by 1996 it took direct aim at the archdiocese, Zehnder says. At first, the archdiocese would return phone calls, but that changed when the paper began writing stories critical of the Chancery's plan to demolish historic St. Vibiana's Cathedral, says Zehnder. The demolition plan has since been aborted.

"I don't know why Cardinal Mahony hates us so much," Zehnder comments, speaking by telephone from his home. "I think he just doesn't like any opposition."

The Mission belongs to a chain of Catholic newspapers owned by Jim Holman, an orthodox Catholic who is also the publisher of the alternative weekly the San Diego Reader. His religious newspapers -- all of them conservative -- are distributed in San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Most are not circulated in Catholic parishes, except for La Cruz de California, a Spanish-language monthly edited in Tijuana, which has been tolerated in Los Angeles churches despite being critical of the archdiocese. The Mission also is distributed in orthodox Catholic bookstores.

"I think that their stories are very provocative and eye openers," one priest tells the Weekly. He adds: "Some of their stories are true."

The priest asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation from his superiors, who might label him a "pre-Vatican II" sympathizer. Vatican II, of course, was the church council, lasting from 1962 to 1965, that liberalized and modernized many church practices, for example, allowing Mass in languages other than Latin and disavowing church doctrine that blamed Jews for the death of Jesus.

The Mission's jihad is to expose the archdiocese's alleged retreat from "real" Catholicism, part of a larger, ongoing conflict between so-called progressives and orthodox conservatives in the church. In this internecine struggle, Mahony, despite relatively conservative beliefs, is considered the embodiment of institutional progressivism.

Every year, orthodox papers like the Mission and local groups such as Concerned Roman Catholics protest Mahony's Religious Education Congress in Anaheim for including speakers the conservatives judge to be pro-choice and pro-gay. Mahony also is a regular target of The Wanderer, a national conservative Catholic newspaper.

Zehnder says the Mission will keep the pressure on. He asserts that promiscuity, as well as a general decline in moral values, has sickened the church -- and vice versa.

"True Christian charity is willing the good for someone else. It is not sentimentalism, but something rooted in the truth of Christ," says Zehnder. "I love the church, but love is sometimes a pretty harsh thing."

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