Cardinal Mahony: The Catholic Church’s Cross to Bear

Pope Benedict XVI has fled the Vatican and left the Catholic Church still deeply mired in a pedophilia crisis he could have alleviated, but didn’t. The horrific cases of priests sexually abusing young boys (mostly) in their care are well known and don’t need to be recounted here.


Over the years, the former head of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony, has been implicated in knowingly and willfully covering up such abuses by surreptitiously transferring deviant priests under his jurisdiction out of parishes where crimes against children were committed and quietly ensconcing them in other churches where their sins were unknown. Rather than report the crimes to authorities, Mahony – and many others throughout the Catholic Church throughout the world; he is far from alone – thought their insular nature would shield them from the long arm of the law. And so church leaders practiced secrecy and deception, and allowed serious crimes to be committed, innocent children to be scarred for life, and crises to grow unabated.

Mahony, who stepped down from his pulpit two years ago, is still a cardinal and, as such, he is now in Rome and preparing to cast his vote in the upcoming conclave for a new pope, despite the cries from many that because of his ignominy and documented culpability he should not attend, and that doing so would be unseemly. The unrepentant Mahony merely thumbed his nose at his detractors and is now using his new pulpit – his twitter account! – to send banal tweets from the Vatican as he prepares to help pick a new Pope.

The relevant question is why didn’t the Pope stop him from coming? What are these holier-than-thou types thinking?

What kind of black smoke signal does it send when a man with Mahony’s dirty hands is about to participate in the secret and sacred election of the man who is supposed to be the moral and spiritual leader of more than one billion followers throughout the world?

To frame the question in lay terms, if an accused felon selects the next, say, prime minister of some country somewhere, how much confidence would the public have in the integrity of that selection? How much confidence should they have?

Mahony has already demonstrated he doesn’t care a fig about perception, but he should. Thus, asking him to “do the right thing” and stay home has proven to be an exercise in ecumenical futility. He is, though, extremely concerned about his own public image – when the scandal first broke in Los Angeles some years ago, he hired a high-priced public relations firm to try to paper over the allegations and divert attention away from the crimes with slick misdirection. You can judge for yourself what a waste of money that was.

The Vatican should have flexed its muscles and told Mahony he is not welcome, whether he is entitled to be there or not. Prudent crisis management tells us that in the pitched battle between perception and reality, perception always wins. And the perception yet again is that the Vatican is not interested in the well being of its flock.

But they should be.

No one can say for sure how many Catholics have left the church over this crisis, but many of those that have done so have said they left more because of the cover ups than because of the actual crimes.

Given that there is perhaps no better example of centralized government than the Vatican, Benedict missed a golden opportunity to send a strong message to Catholics and others around the world by refusing to bar Mahony from the Conclave of Cardinals. It would have been a fitting swan song to this Pope’s eight-year reign, and would have signaled to the world that the church has changed. 

But Benedict failed his worshipers and is now safely locked behind the high walls of Castel Gandolfo, seemingly indifferent to the crisis he never fully addressed, and certainly never stopped. In ordinary times, you could posit that a Pope might fear a backlash from some power brokers within the church if he took a public stand against the deviants. But these are not ordinary times. For the first time in 600 years, a Pope has resigned his office. His ring, the symbol of his authority, will merely be defaced instead of destroyed, as is the custom when a Pope dies.

Thus, as a last act of office he could have sent a strong crisis communications message to his followers that things will change. Instead, there is no reason to believe anything will.

Sometime during the next month, the Conclave will convene behind doors that will remain locked and guarded until a new Pope is elected. Here’s hoping the Cardinals practice sound crisis management by selecting a strong reformer as their new leader. That kind of crisis communications message would pay dividends for years to come.