The public rebuke of retired Cardinal Roger Mahony for failing to take swift action against abusive priests adds tarnish to a career already overshadowed by the church sex abuse scandal but does little to change his role in the larger church.
Mahony can still act as a priest, keep his rank as cardinal and remain on a critical Vatican panel that elects the next pope.
While Archbishop Jose Gomez's decision to strip Mahony of his administrative and public duties was unprecedented in the American Roman Catholic Church, it was another attempt by the church to accept responsibility for the abuse scandal that has engulfed it.
Victims were quick to point out that Mahony's new, paired-down local standing was in stark contrast to his continued position among the prelates at the Vatican.
The decision "is little more than window dressing. Cardinal Mahony is still a very powerful prelate," Joelle Casteix, the Western regional director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said at a Friday news conference outside the Los Angeles cathedral. "He's a very powerful man in Rome and still a very powerful man in Los Angeles."
The Vatican declined to comment Friday when asked if the Holy See would follow Gomez's lead and take action against Mahony.
Tod Tamberg, the archdiocese spokesman, said Mahony was in Rome several weeks ago for meetings unrelated to Thursday's announcement. He said he did not know if Pope Benedict XVI was aware of Gomez's announcement.
The cardinal and Gomez both declined interview requests from The Associated Press.
In a letter to Gomez posted on Mahony's blog Friday, the cardinal said he was ill-equipped to deal with sexually abusive clergy when he took over the archdiocese in 1985 and quickly sought to develop policies and consult with church leaders in other dioceses. He reminded Gomez that he was well aware when he took over in 2011 of the steps Mahony had taken to safeguard children.
"Not once over these past years did you ever raise any questions about our policies, practices, or procedures in dealing with the problem of clergy sexual misconduct involving minors. I have stated time and time again that I made mistakes, especially in the mid-1980s," he wrote.
"Unfortunately, I cannot return now to the 1980s and reverse actions and decisions made then. But when I retired as the active Archbishop, I handed over to you an archdiocese that was second to none in protecting children and youth."
Gomez's public criticism is almost unheard-of in the highly structured church institution and would have been cleared by the Vatican in advance, said the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer who worked for the Vatican's Washington, D.C., embassy.
"He's an archbishop — he cannot order a cardinal around," said Doyle, who co-authored a 1985 report warning of a coming clergy sex abuse scandal. "The Catholic church is a monarchy. If you're one of the princes of the realm and you're a duke, you don't dump on a prince without the king's permission or you're no longer a duke. That's what the deal is."
Gomez went as far as he could within this authority, but only the Pope has the power to sanction a cardinal or laicize him, he said.
Gomez made the announcement Thursday as the church was forced by a court order to turn over thousands of pages of confidential priest personnel files after a bruising, five-year legal fight. The archbishop also accepted a resignation request from one of Mahony's top aides, now-Bishop Thomas Curry.
The move came two weeks after other long-secret priest personnel records showed Mahony and Curry, in particular, worked behind the scenes to protect the church from the engulfing scandal.
Mahony is a member of three Vatican departments, including the Holy See's all-important economic affairs office, and he remains a member of the College of Cardinals. At 76, he is still eligible to vote in a conclave to elect a new pope.
The Vatican's former sex crimes prosecutor, Bishop Charles Scicluna, has said Canon Law provides for sanctioning bishops who show "malicious or fraudulent negligence" in their work, but has acknowledged that such laws have never been applied in the case of bishops who covered up sex abuse cases.
In the past, lower-ranking members of the church hierarchy who have spoken out about their superior's handling of the clergy abuse crisis have been rebuked by the Holy See.
In 2010, for example, Viennese Cardinal Cristoph Schoenborn criticized the former Vatican No. 2, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, in an interview for his handling of a notorious sex abuse case. Schoenborn didn't use Sodano's name in his critique, but was nonetheless forced to come to Rome to explain himself to the pope and Sodano.
The Vatican publicly rebuked Schoenborn, saying that only the pope has authority to deal with accusations against a cardinal.
The Vatican's silence after Thursday's announcement indicates they were aware of it, said Patrick Wall, a former Benedictine monk and priest and vocal church critic who consults on clergy abuse cases.
"Gomez was as brilliant as a sniper the way he orchestrated this because he did not overstep his authority against the Pope and yet at the same time it appears that some type of penalty is being imposed," said Wall. "He cannot force Mahony to resign. It's brilliant and this has never happened in the U.S."
Mahony will reduce his public appearances, including numerous guest lectures nationwide on immigration reform, and no longer perform confirmations, Tamberg said. However, he remains a priest in good standing and will continue to live in a North Hollywood parish and can celebrate the sacraments with no restrictions, he said.
Several of the documents in the newly released files echo recurring themes that emerged over the past decade in dioceses nationwide, where church leaders moved problem priests between parishes and didn't call the police.
Studies commissioned by the U.S. bishops found more than 4,000 U.S. priests have faced sexual abuse allegations since the early 1950s, in cases involving more than 10,000 children — mostly boys.
In one instance, a draft of a plan with Mahony's name on it calls for sending a molester priest to his native Spain for a minimum of seven years, paying him $400 a month and offering health insurance. In return, the cardinal would agree to write the Vatican and ask them to cancel his excommunication, leaving the door open for him to return as a priest someday.
It was unclear whether the proposed agreement was enacted.
"I am concerned that the Archdiocese may later be seen as liable — for having continued to support this man — now that we have been put on notice that one of the young adults under his influence is suicidal," a top aide wrote in a memo about the priest to Mahony in 1995, urging him to stop paying benefits to the priest.
The cardinal added a handwritten note: "I concur — the faster, the better."
In another case, Mahony resisted turning over a list of altar boys to police who were investigating claims against a visiting Mexican priest who was later determined to have molested 26 boys during a 10-month stint in Los Angeles. "We cannot give such a list for no cause whatsoever," he wrote on a January 1988 memo.
Mahony, who retired in 2011 after more than a quarter-century at the helm of the archdiocese, has publicly apologized for mistakes he made in dealing with priests who molested children.
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