Is Cardinal Mahoney’s censure a sign of a new Catholic Church?

Pablo Martinez Monsivais AP Photographs of children who where abused by members of the catholic clergy line the sidewalk during … Continued

Pablo Martinez Monsivais


Photographs of children who where abused by members of the catholic clergy line the sidewalk during a protest outside the headquarters of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) prior to the release of the findings of a study to analyze the pattern of clergy sex abuse, Wednesday, May 18, 2011 in Washington.

With retired Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony now stripped of his public duties for his mishandling of the sexual abuses cases in his archdiocese, there is a temptation to be either celebratory or cynical.

It’s either an important step in the purification of Catholicism, or it’s an insufficient punishment for a terrible series of crimes.

Does it mark a new beginning for American Catholicism or has nothing really changed?

It all depends upon whether the lesson learned is about punishment or transparency.

When Archbishop Jose Gomez removed his predecessor from acting publicly as a bishop, it was obviously just. Given the extensive evidence that he hid abusers from justice himself, it would be scandalous for Cardinal Mahony to be allowed to participate in the sacraments of confirmation or ordination, which are to be performed by bishops. While Cardinal Mahony has spoken about his “index cards” with names of victims for whom he prays, many felt that his repentance and acknowledgment of responsibility did not run deep enough. If one wants evidence for a purification of the church–as Benedict XVI has called for–one might very well point to this as an important beginning.

Cynics too have a case to make since it is clear that disciplining Cardinal Mahony was something far more acceptable to church authorities than holding Cardinal Bernard Law accountable for a similar kind of cover-up. The public relations landscape has obviously changed. But even before the details of abuse in Los Angeles became widely known, Cardinal Mahony was often derisively called an “ultra-liberal” by those on the Catholic right who were against his advocacy for immigrants and his assertion of other aspects of Catholic social teaching. Now that fuller evidence has emerged about how Cardinal Mahony orchestrated the transfers of abuser-priests, even those who admired aspects of his work in Los Angeles could no longer support him. Mahony was quite simply a cardinal without a constituency.

View Photo Gallery: With nearly one in four Americans in its fold, a powerful lobby and extensive charity work, the Catholic Church is one of the most influential institutions in America.

Focusing on what and how much punishment to mete out to Cardinal Mahony might be satisfying on a number of levels, but it’s easy to overstate its significance. Since the church is composed of inevitably flawed human beings, it can never be purified in an absolute sense. In fact, it was the desire to maintain the image of the church as some sort of spotless institution that motivated many cover-ups. Emphasizing purification, and connecting it with punishment, has all sorts of repercussions that extend beyond the specifics of the scandal of sexual abuse to how Catholic Christians understand their obligations to each other and to themselves.

For me, the most significant aspect of the church’s response is not the disciplining of Cardinal Mahony, but the release of internal church documents. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles did fight to prevent the files from becoming public. But with the court order, Archbishop Gomez did move rapidly.

If the release of the documents was done solely out of legal necessity, then it is difficult to see how matters will fundamentally change. To be sure, we might see further removals of bishops, but that would be largely symbolic and cosmetic. If, however, there is a new willingness on the part of the church to be fully open not just about its inner workings but about its faults-then it would definitely mark the beginning of a new and different era in American Catholicism. Transparency is not just important for preventing further abuse, or for addressing matters of liability and legal responsibility. It’s also an important spiritual act that acknowledges our own humanness and our own accountability to one another.


Mathew N. Schmalz Mathew N. Schmalz is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at The College of the Holy Cross.
  • question1

    From your mouth to God’s ear. I sincerely grieve the loss of my church, as I believed it to be.

    John 8:32 “… and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free”. Ironical, ain’t it?

  • PhillyJimi1

    What a joke. Nope, a joke is funny.

    This is out right criminal. This guy belongs in prison. If a member of your organization commits a crime and you conspire to cover it up. Then you need to be locked up in a cage.

    There is a cancer in our society when we let the real criminals go free and lock up young people for simple drug possession. If someone chooses to in a free country to get stoned then that is on them. A adult raping a child is one of the most heinous crimes one can think of.

  • jjlc125

    Good for Archbishop Gomez. Roger Mahony doesn’t deserve the privilege of serving in public. Let’s hope the Catholic Church acts swiftly to discipline other leaders who’ve covered up sexual abuse, and that other churches and denominations with a history of similar cover-ups, such as Sovereign Grace Ministries, follow suit.


    NO. You are seeing a P.R. cover up of the cover ups by the RCC administration. If it was not for the good nuns and good priest, the RCC would come apart from the inside out. The silence of the truth to protect the image is wrong from day one. All nations must protect their children by law without time limits of all crimes and or cover ups of the crimes no matter by who.


    A life of celibacy for a male is unnatural as well a source for trouble.

  • FelicityHangnail

    It is quite obvious now that the Roman Catholic Church and Christ’s true Church are quite distinct entities…………………………… the way, is this the same way in which Cardinal Law was “punished”? What a dispicable institution.

  • nkri401

    “Is Cardinal Mahony’s censure a sign of a new Catholic Church?”

    I doubt it but thanks for asking…

  • snapjudy

    Finally the ugly truth is being exposed, finally the victims may feel validation, and finally these church officials might be held responsible for covering these sex crimes, so that no other child is sexually abused again.

    But this is curious…..How is it possible that Cardinal Mahony (who deserves to be prosecuted for covering up sex crimes against innocent kids) can be removed of his duties.?….And yet convicted criminal KC Bishop Finn can not..?

    They make up their own rules.. which is so sad for all the victims of clergy sex abuse..Keep in mind, the LA Archdiocese is not unique in how they handle sex crimes against kids.

    Judy Jones, SNAP Midwest Associate Director, 636-433-2511. [email protected],
    (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests)

  • FelicityHangnail

    Folks, just have a look at to get a true picture of what has /is happening in this vile institution known as the Roman Catholic Church. It is no way a part of Christ’s true Church!!!!

  • FelicityHangnail
  • Bluefish2012

    And of course the commission you suggest will also include educational leaders and teachers, Scouting leaders, all other church, synagogue, and other religious leaders as well as all the other child abusers in the country (c.f. your state’s list of sex offenders); right?

    The point is, this is not just an RCC problem as much as the commenters here would like it to be because they have an agenda beyond solving child sexual abuse.

  • DavidJ9

    I’ve no reason to trust the RCC hierarchy. The bishops, from Benedict to the newest bishop of a small diocese have shown themselves to be indifferent to the suffering that their decades of coverup have caused. They do as little as they can get away with, but no more.

    Benedict was responsible, both when running the Inquisition and as Pope for making it hard to find out what was going on and encouraging those who alleged that the victims were liars. If he were an honorable man, a moral man, he would resign in shame. As long as there is corruption from the top, the RCC cannot be trusted.

  • DieselGuard

    This is reprehensible and the sex abuse issue has been handled abominably but the Catholic church has survived many such scandals because it is an institution founded by Christ. Though governed by the unworthy and full of sinners the fact is no human institution would have survived such things.

  • FrenchChef

    This Catholic League is led by William Donohue, just to make the politics of that view clear, Bluefish.


    Stripped of his duties? He was already RETIRED.


    Yes it is. Christian churches have been committing vile acts for nearly 2 millennia.

    Christ’s church is entirely corrupt.

  • NorwegianBlue

    No, it’s not just a Roman Catholic problem. On the other hand, Catholics have made up 20 to 25 percent of the U.S. population for decades, and as a religious institution have a far more highly centralized structure than most Christian denominations.

    Conveniently, though, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has about as much say over what its members do in their individual dioceses as the Division of Motor Vehicles does over what color the interior of your car is.

    The hierarchy has strained numerous ecclesiastical muscles in relentless (and expensive) efforts to “prevent scandal,” which outside of a chancery means “make sure the church doesn’t look bad.”

    If, as Cardinal Dolan has said, “the days of fat, balding Irish bishops are over” (would that it were true), the day of soft-voiced, well-intentioned, inward-focused, tone-deaf spiritual careerists surrounded by soothing staff and screamingly ignorant about the day-to-day lives of ordinary families is not.

    Sooner or later, one of the big fish will finally go to jail. I am not eager for that, but I think that will be the first real stepl toward change, and perhaps the only way in which the USCCB begins to put a little daylight between its self and the ever further out of touch coterie in Rome.

  • Secular1

    Mathew Schmalz, you carry the water fro your beloved church far too easily. Any, new development where the secular authorities gain a nano-inch of ground against RCC despite all its efforts to thwart it. There was absolutely nothing that RCC has done in censuring Mahoney, but accept the inevitable. There is absolutely nothing that RCC has done to this day that was voluntary. Even if they were to give up that pond scum Bernard Law, it would not give RCC an iota of redemption. The only way that they can establish (not regain) some positive reputation is if it releases all the sordid files of pedophilia that are tucked away in the vaults in Vatican, for past 15 centuries.

  • jjlc125

    Cardinal Mahony may be retired, but retired bishops and priests still have the right to conduct public services unless instructed otherwise. I applaud Archbishop Gomez for his decision.

  • itsthedax

    If the Catholic Church was changing at all, they’d be actively cleaning house, turning records over to prosecutors, and cooperating with investigations.

    All they are doing now is the bare minimum that they’re required to do, and continuing to cover up what they can.

  • FelicityHangnail

    No, Soddi………… is not Christ’s Church that is corrupt……..the very corrupt organization is the Roman Catholic Church….which is obviously quite a seperate entity from Christ’s true Church..

  • jimwalters1

    I am guessing that “Christ’s true Church” includes whatever your own denomination is, assuming it does not consist soley of your own denomination.

    There has been plenty of vile behavior in various protestant churches over the centuries. The actions of the Westboro Baptist Church is just one example recent. It also bugs me when protestants claim ownership of all the good actions by pre-reformation Christians, but disavow any connection to the pre-reformation abuses.

  • malusk03

    Has the Church changed? Not if Mahony’s still a cardinal, and a bishop, and a priest, and in good standing as a communicant.


    A male living a life as a celibate is unnatural and invites trouble.




    Why would any person trust the RCC hierarchy today from what we all know of this group of what they have done as well as failed to do? The problem with the RCC is not the religion but the hierarchy from 1100s to date. No wonder there was a Reformation. If it was not for the good nuns and good priest, the RCC would come apart from the inside out. And they thought moveable type was dangerous.

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