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Roger’s Nest 

So what keeps this cardinal from flying away?

Thursday, Mar 11 2004

Cardinal Roger Mahony has been admonished by a national lay-Catholic review board for his hardball legal tactics in the clergy sex-abuse scandal. Without singling out Mahony, the board also urged all pedophile-priest-concealing bishops to resign. Mahony, by his own admission, has protected such priests, and he is in no rush to release documents sought by prosecutors and trial attorneys.

Barring an uprising of the masses, it’s safe to bet the entire collection plate on Mahony staying — for now.

The Catholic Church has always resisted external pressure to punish bishops for concealing molesters. With few exceptions over the last two decades, bishops themselves must be accused as molesters before they’ve considered resigning. Even then the pope has the last word. Mahony, with his legal muscle and public relations campaigns, has stubbornly toed the Vatican line by facing down scandal. But Los Angeles parishioners and non-pedophile priests have accepted moral failure in their bishops for decades. They are the ones who could pressure Mahony to open up or step down.

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Former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta, a member of the National Review Board assembled by Catholic bishops to study pedophilia in the priesthood, says the church’s medieval nature, with its fiefdoms and secrecy, shields those at the top and silences those in the pews. “I don’t think anyone ought to imply that Mahony does not bear responsibility for concealing priests,” Panetta says, reserving final judgment. “There is still so much that remains hidden. But parishioners are not expressing outrage. So you can’t really expect much to change.”

No wonder, given the entrenched legal proceedings that have kept the public in the dark about the extent of Mahony’s action or inaction and a mainstream media that defer to his power. (In reporting the review board’s findings that 4,000 priests have molested 10,000 children in five decades nationwide, the Los Angeles Times finally called out Mahony for his self-styled image as a reformer recently. The Times failed to mention that it helped create this image through its own compromised editorial dealings with Mahony, his lawyer and PR experts Sitrick and Company.)

Both the splash made by the review board and the brief arousal of the Times dissipated quickly. A spokesman for the board suggested that by calling for bishops to step down, the board had “whacked the ball back into the bishops’ court.” The board simply reverted to what got the church in trouble in the first place: asking the fox to guard the henhouse. Which is really just telling Catholics in Los Angeles that if they want Mahony gone, they have to find the courage to say so.

Panetta and others on the review board know this is where the task of forcing accountability belongs — despite their efforts to call Mahony on the carpet — not to mention the earnest attempts of law enforcers and lofty promises of trial lawyers to expose a scandal. Theologians and canon-law experts, however, see an even greater dilemma: the clash of secular moral values with the religious values of the Holy Roman Empire.

By ancient Roman standards, the National Review Board’s call for the resignation of bishops who have placed children in harm’s way is like the Children’s Crusade. “The poor guys have no enforcement authority,” canon lawyer Patrick Wall says of the review board. “Ultimately the bishops decide what’s best.” And bishops generally will answer only to the pope, says Wall, a former judge of a tribunal for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis who now works on behalf of sex-abuse victims. “We kid ourselves when we get these reports from an American perspective,” he says. “The church is set up and run from a Roman Catholic perspective.”

Wall points to more than a dozen U.S. Catholic bishops who have resigned since 1990. Almost all stepped down because of alleged sexual misconduct. The few who were caught covering it up did not exit easily. Cardinal Bernard Law of the Archdiocese of Boston was getting flogged publicly for harboring molesters when he took a secret flight to Rome to tender his resignation in April 2002. Yet the pope rejected the offer and sent Law back to Boston, where collections later plunged by 40 percent and 58 priests signed a petition for him to step down, which he did in December 2002.

Last May, Bishop Thomas O’Brien of the Diocese of Phoenix cut a deal with prosecutors who were about to charge him with obstruction of justice for stonewalling a criminal investigation into allegations of sexual abuse by priests. In return for criminal immunity, O’Brien agreed to resign. However, it was not until he was charged with leaving the scene of a fatal accident that the Vatican formally accepted his resignation.

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