Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony has made it clear he plans to attend the upcoming conclave to elect a new pope. A lot of people don't like that one bit.
"It sends the wrong message," said Ken Smolka, one of hundreds of people who were sexually abused by priests in America's largest archdiocese. "If Mahony helps choose the new pope, what it says is, 'Nothing has changed.'"
Mahony is the latest Roman Catholic prelate to have his moral authority compromised because of his poor handling of the sexual abuse scandal during the 1980s and '90s. But he is not the first.
The scandal in L.A. is similar to the scandal in Boston that eventually led Cardinal Bernard Law to resign as archbishop of Boston. One key difference is that, for years, Cardinal Mahony successfully fought the release of key personnel documents relating to his administration's handling of abuse cases. Ultimately, a judge ordered their release.
The documents were so damning the current Archbishop of Los Angeles, Jose Gomez, issued a public rebuke of his predecessor. Gomez said Cardinal Mahony would no longer perform any public duties on behalf of the archdiocese.
For an archbishop to publicly upbraid a cardinal - who outranks him in the church hierarchy - was without precedent in recent history.
Just as Cardinal Law's participation in the 2005 conclave became a focal point for anger over the abuse scandal, Cardinal Mahony is taking the heat this time around.
This week, a fellow prince of the church even chimed in, suggesting, in the most diplomatic way possible, that Mahony think twice before coming to Rome.
Speaking to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Cardinal Velasio de Paolis called it "disturbing" that Cardinal Mahony should participate in the election the new pope.
"But," he noted, "the rules have to be respected."
Those rules make it clear that it is the right and duty of every cardinal under age 80 to attend the conclave.
De Paolis said: "He [Mahony] could be advised not to attend only by a private intervention by someone of great authority."
"You can use persuasion; you can't do any more," he said.
Plenty of people are trying.
Italy's leading Catholic newsweekly, Famiglia Cristiana - distributed free in churches here every Sunday - is conducting an online poll: Should the disgraced cardinal be allowed to vote or not? So far, 5,600 people have said no.
Caramella Buona - a leading anti-pedophilia group in Italy - issued a statement this week, saying, "Mahony and other cardinals involved in covering up abuse scandals should stay away from the conclave."
Among the others set to participate is the primate of Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady, who has faced numerous calls to resign over his handling of the Irish clerical abuse scandal.
In response to questions, the Vatican has said, "It is a duty of all cardinals to come and participate in the conclave."
The archbishop of Los Angeles has no objections either. In a letter sent to Los Angeles priests, Archbishop Gomez expressed confidence that "Cardinal Mahony's accomplishments and experience in the areas of immigration, social justice, sacred liturgy and the role of the laity in the church will serve the College of Cardinals well as it works to discern the will of the Holy Spirit."
Gomez added, "Having been promoted to the dignity of cardinal, Cardinal Mahony has all of the prerogatives and privileges of his standing as a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church."
Mahony's supporters give him credit for revamping the way the archdiocese now handles allegations of sexual abuse and helping to make LA a model for other diocese moving forward.
After 2002, he adopted a "zero tolerance" approach on issues of abuse, immediately suspending any priest accused and dismissing them if the allegations proved correct. He also brought in strict background checks for new clergy and required all volunteers in parochial schools to undergo training on the issue.
Under a judge's order, Cardinal Mahony will be allowed to come only after he is deposed in one of the lawsuits brought by victims of priestly abuse. The victims say they're worried Mahony will choose to stay in Rome and thwart their quest for justice.
"Mahony shouldn't be allowed to leave the country," Smolka said. "He belongs behind bars."
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