ANAHEIM, Calif. -- For decades, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony was the convener and the star of the nation's largest annual gathering of American Roman Catholics, which opened Thursday in California.
This year, though, Cardinal Mahony was nowhere to be seen at the gathering, the Religious Education Congress. His workshop on immigration was canceled. The cardinal was relieved of his public duties last month by his successor after the release of 12,000 pages of internal church files revealing how Cardinal Mahony protected priests accused of sexually abusing minors.
In an unprecedented breach of the deference U.S. bishops usually grant one another, current Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez said he found the documents "brutal and painful" reading. Cardinal Mahony soon shot back, posting a bitter open letter to Archbishop Gomez on his blog.
With Cardinal Mahony set to fly to Rome next week to elect a new pope, the prelates' duel in the country's largest archdiocese has set off shock waves in the church. Catholics in Los Angeles are re-evaluating the cardinal's legacy, and newspapers in Italy are running articles asking whether the disgraced cardinal should attend the papal conclave.
At the same time, this is a defining moment for Archbishop Gomez, who took over from Cardinal Mahony two years ago and is universally described as low-key and quiet, particularly compared with his predecessor. His public rebuke of Cardinal Mahony stunned observers not only for its content, but also because the normally mild-mannered archbishop reacted so swiftly and dramatically. Now, many here are waiting anxiously to see how he will try to lead the archdiocese past the scandal.
The documents show that Cardinal Mahony helped shield priests accused of sexual abuse from police, in some cases encouraging them to stay out of the state or country to avoid potential criminal investigations.
Cardinal Mahony's shadow looms large. Attendees at the congress, largely educators who teach teenagers and adults across the country, said they have been stung by recent events and are grappling with ways to make sense of what happened and how to move forward.
In most ways, the practical impact of Archbishop Gomez's rebuke is minimal -- while Cardinal Mahony has canceled presiding at confirmations this year, he is still a priest in good standing with the church. He can still celebrate Mass and is still eligible to vote for a pope.
Cardinal Mahony was known for marching in public rallies, cultivating allies in politics and Hollywood and an almost larger-than-life public persona. By contrast, Archbishop Gomez has rarely appeared in the press over the past two years. He declined to be interviewed for this article, and his staff declined to allow a reporter into the Religious Education Congress without an escort.
Before Cardinal Mahony's retirement, he wrote that he had asked Pope Benedict XVI to appoint an archbishop coadjutor who would work alongside him for a year. When the appointment turned out to be his "friend and brother," Cardinal Mahony said he was delighted. He was particularly happy, he wrote, that a Mexican priest would take over the diocese, where more than two-thirds of the parishioners are Latino. The two lived together with three other priests for more than a year, watching football games and traveling through much of the region as a pair.
After the documents were released last month, Archbishop Gomez said in his statement that he was shocked at the content and placed blame on his predecessor. But an official familiar with Los Angeles church affairs, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid offending the church hierarchy, said Archbishop Gomez was familiar with the documents' contents well before they were released, and was a hands-on administrator who wanted to be kept apprised of the developments regarding the documents.
It will be another four years before Archbishop Gomez is eligible to be made a cardinal, when Cardinal Mahony turns 80 and can no longer vote in the conclave. Church rules bar two voting cardinals in a diocese.
For many, Cardinal Mahony has long been a lightning rod in the church. He has deep wells of respect among Latinos, largely because of his role as a champion for immigrants. But traditionalists resent him for his liberal stances. And he has come under considerable attack for the way he handled priests accused of sexual abuse, particularly since 2007, when the archdiocese reached a record $660 million settlement with more than 500 victims.
In recent weeks, Cardinal Mahony responded with his own vigorous defense, saying he had never been prepared to deal with the problem, and that he later worked to put protections for children into place. He has also written regularly on his blog about being confronted, "scapegoated" and "humiliated, disgraced and rebuffed by many."
Cardinal Mahony is to be questioned under oath today about several cases of sexual abuse in the documents.