July 17, 2007 / 8:12 PM / 12 years ago

Latino support aids cardinal in abuse storm

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles faces a firestorm after a $660 million settlement with victims of priest abuse, but he is considered unlikely to resign as legions of Latinos stand behind him.

Cardinal Roger Mahony, head of Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, speaks at a news conference at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles July 15, 2007. Mahony faces a firestorm after a $660 million settlement with victims of priest abuse, but he is considered unlikely to resign as legions of Latinos stand behind him. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni/Files

In the most Latino of the big U.S. cities, Mahony’s support for equality and immigration reform have earned him a following that may help him avoid the fate of other U.S. Roman Catholic leaders forced out in abuse scandals.

“I have a lot of confidence in the political and religious capital he has to survive this,” said Clara Irazabal, a professor of urban planning at University of Southern California who works with Latino organizations.

“In social justice and immigration reform, he has been working for decades and a lot of people recognize his historical loyalty,” she added.

Mahony this week acceded to the record settlement for victims of sexual abuse by priests, apologized publicly and sat in silence in court on Monday while victims sobbed at the end of a five-year battle.

Afterward, as the leader of 4.3 million people in the largest U.S. Roman Catholic diocese retreated to pray for the victims, L.A. County’s district attorney accused Mahony of “an incredible moral failure”.

Mahony has recently fortified his standing among Latinos, who comprise nearly half the Los Angeles population, by criticizing Washington for failing to reform the immigration system and for keeping 12 million illegal immigrants in limbo.

But his ties with the area’s Latinos go far back.

Mahony was born in Hollywood. He sowed his social roots as a rural priest working in the 1960s alongside Cesar Chavez, the Latino labor-movement hero.

He then rose quickly through the church hierarchy. In 1985, at the age of 49, he became the first native Angeleno to head the Los Angeles archdiocese and Pope John Paul II made him cardinal in 1991.

He speaks fluent Spanish with churchgoers and the media and holds Spanish-language Mass at Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral, where priests and parishioners alike sway to Latin rhythms.

‘EVEN COLDER’

Mahony is likely to face more difficult days as Catholics and the media scrutinize his decision to offer the $660 million for 508 victims two days before the first trial was to begin for 12 plaintiffs on Monday.

Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez wrote that the top priority of church leaders in the settlement was: “Keep Mahony off the stand.”

“Under oath, he would have been forced to explain exactly what he knew about the scandal and what he did or didn’t do, in response,” Lopez wrote on Tuesday.

Mahony has come under intense fire in the last five years for mishandling cases of suspected child molestation by priests, who were shuffled among parishes when parents began to complain instead of being removed.

An Oscar-nominated documentary, “Deliver Us From Evil,” last year highlighted a case in which about an Irish pedophile priest was protected from justice for 25 years by the church in Northern California while Mahony was a top official there.

Amy Berg, the film’s director, said Mahony’s actions this week are an example of his failure to take responsibility.

“Just writing a check so you don’t have to testify doesn’t show any type of sincerity, it just makes him look even colder,” said Berg.

“There is a question of ‘How does Roger Mahony survive this?’,” added Berg.

For Juan Samayoa, 65, an immigrant from Guatemala, there is no room for criticism of his community’s long-time ally.

“He is an excellent cardinal,” said Samayoa as he left Mass on Sunday. “He defends immigrants, the middle class, the poor and he speaks Spanish.”

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