Scandal digs a hole for LA's flashy cardinal

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The Independent US

Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles is, by his own admission, a man under siege. The brand new cathedral he has been building for the past four years, at a cost of almost $200m (£146m), is turning into a budgetary and public relations nightmare. He comes in for almost weekly criticism for hobnobbing with rich, powerful allies such as Rupert Murdoch in a diocese where 80 per cent of the faithful are poor Latinos.

The man sometimes tipped to be the first American Pope is also under fire for an exclusive deal he has offered to a Louisiana-based mortuary company that charges twice as much for its funeral plans as its would-be local competitors.

And in the middle of all this comes the paedophilia scandal in the US Catholic Church. Cardinal Mahony has not faced the kind of scandalous revelations that have rocked the church in Boston, but his clumsy attempts to be seen to be doing something – in what is by far the largest diocese in the United States, with 4.5 million faithful – have drawn him into the firing line.

Los Angeles, with its mix of celebrity glamour, obscene wealth, urban blight, racism and an army of immigrant workers living below the poverty line, has always been an odd sort of place for the Catholic church to operate. After 17 years as archbishop and 11 as cardinal, Mahony embodies many of these contradictions. He once marched with Cesar Chavez, the legendary farmworkers' leader, but he also has a fettuccine dish, laced with cognac and double cream, named after him at a swanky Italian restaurant. A number of his rich friends, including Mr Murdoch, have been offered burial places in the crypt of his new cathedral – a yellow fortress-like monstrosity opening in September that his critics have nicknamed the "Taj Mahony".

His big mistake on the paedophilia issue was to make a pre-emptive public relations strike and let it be known he had quietly dismissed up to 12 former clergymen for molestation offences. It was an attempt to control the agenda. The problem was, Cardinal Mahony refused to say who the 12 were, or hand over their names to the police. That has not only sparked a public furore; it could well be illegal under California's Child Abuse Reporting Act, which specifically mandates priests to report any suspected child abuse within 36 hours.

Both the district attorney's office and the Los Angeles police have written to the cardinal, urging him to come clean. He, however, told a gathering of diocesan priests last week that he would not name names for fear of traumatising the victims all over again. It was up to the victims, he said, to come forward if they wanted. "That's crap!" was the outraged reaction of Anne Cox, of the Children's Protection and Advocacy Coalition. "He's taking all the pressure off the paedo-priests and putting it all on the victims." Without full disclosure, Ms Cox argued, there was no guarantee the perpetrators would not be put in positions of trust with children again.

"I have never felt so devastated, so sad, and so besieged," the cardinal said on Monday. But his stance has, by now, earned almost universal opprobrium, including a pointed editorial in the Los Angeles Times arguing that the separation of church and state did not give Catholics a licence to harbour criminals.

Some of the cardinal's critics believe his attitude is linked to financial concerns over his cathedral. The budget for the building is five times the original estimate, and his diocese last year paid out $5.2m to a teenager who sued the church over a molestation claim and won. Further disclosures would inevitably lead to more litigation and probable huge settlements.

And if the paedophiles come out of the woodwork in Los Angeles, as they have in Boston, which of his corporate friends is going to want to bail the cardinal out?