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Power Giving: Dr. Cardinal on Campus 

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HIS EMINENCE IS MOST CERTAINLY IN HIS ELEMENT THIS TUESDAY EVENING: chatting up blue-haired contributors under the glare of chandeliers; cracking jokes with fellow heavyweights as a jazz combo cranks out a finger-poppin' tune; admiring a large, pastel rendering of a proposed edifice, its architect grinning by his side. Heck, even Governor Gray Davis could take lessons from this fellow on how to work a room.

The occasion has nothing at all to do with the $189 million Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral downtown. Rather, Cardinal Roger Mahony has stopped by this soiree at USC's Town and Gown Hall to help kick off the capital campaign for a new Catholic Center. The current one, just a block and a half off campus, is small, cramped and certainly not befitting USC's estimated 10,000 Catholic students.

The goal is a tidy $14 million. That's a drop in the bucket considering the price tag of the dirt-brown, Soviet-style monolith many refer to as the Taj Mahony. On the other hand, it's more than three times the $4.3 million deficit in the archdiocese's budget, which this September prompted severe cuts in seven of its ministries and outreach programs. Some 60 positions were eliminated, affecting programs aiding the imprisoned and the disabled, as well as religious education and the ministries to gay and lesbian Catholics. Ministries on six Cal State campuses were closed. Notably, ministries at USC, as well as UCLA and UCSB, survived.

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The archdiocese insists in its official newspaper, The Tidings, that it's all due to "the continuing economic downturn and reduction in investment income." In other words, they lost a bundle on the stock market. Everyone understands a bear market, right?

Alas, not everyone, as five of Mahony's top lieutenants resigned en masse the day before Halloween in a move many have called a protest over the budget cuts. Then there are all the lawsuits pending against the archdiocese from victims of alleged priestly sexual abuse, which will have to be settled one way or another. Throw in the wild-card possibility of criminal proceedings against the cardinal himself should D.A. Steve Cooley so decide, and you're looking at a morass of lawyers' fees that'd make Eli Broad wince.

Maybe it's because USC's campus outreach survived the cardinal's ax that none of these matters are topics of conversation in Town and Gown. Everyone's all smiles, from the well-scrubbed Catholic students encouraged to attend by their beloved, avuncular Father Bill Messenger, USC Catholic Center's pastor and director, to the prospective donors, the Catholic alumni who've been invited to partake of the university's hospitality. Here tuxedoed waiters serve canapés on silver trays. In the back there's a cook serving up quesadillas made to order.

At 6 feet 4 inches, Cardinal Mahony may be the tallest person present. This makes him fairly easy to observe as he moves smoothly from cluster to cluster of alums. But the impulse to walk up to Rog and start firing off questions is tempered by the knowledge that I am a guest of one of the attendees. And before me is a California dream, a tanned blond with a slightly upturned nose and a skirt so short that it surely gives her professors heart palpitations.

"I came because Father Bill asked me," says the freshman, her green eyes quickly flitting down to her pink toenails, visible because she's chosen flip-flops for footwear. "And because of the free food. I think I'll probably hit the Nine-O later. Tuesday night's a big night."

God bless coeds. But before I can find out what time she plans to be at the infamous 901 Club, a string of chortling dignitaries assails the podium. One of the first is university president Steven B. Sample, who rises to introduce tonight's honored guest, the good cardinal. Sample mentions that Mahony is the most recent recipient of USC's honorary doctorate in humane letters: "Therefore, I believe the correct form of address is Dr. Cardinal."

Sample's decision to grant the honorary sheepskin to His Eminence during this past spring's commencement ceremony caused a few arched eyebrows off campus. A fortnight prior, Mahony was sued in L.A. Superior Court under RICO, the federal racketeering law, for allegedly running a criminal enterprise in shielding priests accused of sexual abuse of minors. Four days after the cardinal received his doctorate in all his red finery, Mahony admitted in a fax to his brother priests that he had mishandled the case of Father Michael Stephen Baker. According to the L.A. Times, Baker, who was in active ministry until 2000, says he came clean to Mahony in 1986 that he had molested two boys. But Mahony did not report Baker to the authorities until this year. Numerous counts of alleged child molestation have now been filed, and two other former priests, Carlos Rene Rodriguez and G. Neville Rucker, have been similarly charged. D.A. Cooley says there will be others, and the Ventura County D.A. is also nipping at Mahony's heels.

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