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Parishioners Debate Cardinal Mahony's Legacy


Catholics in Los Angeles are reassessing the legacies of their church leaders. A court order led to the release of thousands of pages of documents on sex abuse. The documents relate to something we've heard about on this program, that Cardinal Roger Mahony shielded abusive priests while he was archbishop. Here's NPR's Kirk Siegler.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The documents now posted online on the church's website link to internal memos and reports about 124 priests accused of child sex abuse. Click through them, and you'll find lengthy, disturbing details about each of the alleged abuses, and some show how then-Archbishop Roger Mahony and other leaders concealed the allegations and sent accused priests away.


SIEGLER: Outside the massive Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in downtown Los Angeles, parishioners filing out of mass have mixed feelings about all of these revelations. Maddy McCall has been worshiping here since the Cathedral was built 10 years ago under Mahony's leadership.

MADDY MCCALL: Mahony's name is Mahony, not Jesus Christ. If they crucify him, it's not going to save the world.

SIEGLER: She's upset with the current archbishop, Jose Gomez. He decided to strip Cardinal Mahony of all public duties after a judge ordered the files released without the names of church leaders redacted. Overhearing this, fellow parishioner Tonya McDonald pipes in from across the sidewalk, defending Gomez.

TONYA MCDONALD: We need to persecute those people who are doing wrong, not just send them someplace else, because that's what the Catholic does. I've been a Catholic all my life, and that's what they've always done.

TOM HONORE: I don't want to lay it all on him, because I think more and more, it becomes clear that is something that involves Rome and the Vatican and a culture that goes way back.

SIEGLER: Tom Honore is a former priest who's now with the L.A. chapter of the liberal Catholic reform group Call to Action. He says Cardinal Mahony was a smart politician willing to spend a lot of money protecting his reputation and the church.

HONORE: It'd be laughable if it weren't so sad to hear him say he didn't know what to do in 1985 to protect children.

SIEGLER: Cardinal Mahony was a licensed social worker, and spent much of his time working on behalf of farm workers' rights. He was also a leader in the immigration reform movement, and that won him praise across the L.A. archdiocese, where nearly three out of every four parishioners is Latino.

ANGELICA SALAS: What he did for immigrant communities and for the undocumented is invaluable. It's something that has been so powerful, and it saddens me that this was also happening within the Church.

SIEGLER: Angelica Salas heads the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, which honored Cardinal Mahony at a gala two years ago. She says the scandal has left many in her community feeling torn.

SALAS: In Spanish, they say (Spanish spoken), which is you can't be the light on the street and the darkness in your home.

SIEGLER: Indeed, many parishioners are sad, disappointed and angry, but Father Thomas Rausch of Loyola Marymount University predicts that, in the end, most will take the long view.

THOMAS RAUSCH: I hope his, you know, slowness to respond to the sexual abuse scandal in the archdiocese of Los Angeles will not overshadow all the positive things he's done in his 25 years as archbishop.

SIEGLER: Nevertheless, that slow response and the sex abuse scandal is what Cardinal Mahony and other hierarchy may be remembered most for. Authorities are going through the trove of church documents to see if any criminal charges can be brought. Kirk Siegler, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And we'll continue following this story on MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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