In an effort to pressure Cardinal Roger Mahony to withdraw from a talk he is scheduled to give at the upcoming Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ Religious Education Congress, a private Facebook group called 1000 Fed Up Catholics launched what it deemed “D-Day” on Feb. 26. The group asked 500 of its members to send registered or certified letters to the cardinal requesting he remove himself from the event—the gesture forcing the cardinal or someone assisting him to sign for each piece of correspondence. The group also asked its members to blast the archdiocesan religious education office with emails urging that he be withdrawn from the congress.
The invitation-only Facebook group objects to the cardinal’s participation at R.E.C. because of his handling of the church’s sexual abuse crisis during his leadership of the archdiocese between 1985 and 2011. The group was created by the Ruth Institute. That organization is also responsible for one of a number of online petitions pressing to have Cardinal Mahony removed from the R.E.C. program.
To date the institute’s petition has received slightly more than 4,000 signatures, roughly one-tenth of the normal attendance at the congress (though there is no indication how many of the petitioners would also prove to be R.E.C. attendees). Members of the Fed Up Catholics group have also posted negative reviews on the Facebook pages of the R.E.C. and the archdiocese’s Office of Religious Education. The office’s review page is filled with attacks on Cardinal Mahony and demands that he withdraw.
“We respect him and his office. But right now the issue of clergy sexual abuse is so much in the news, and the issue of covering up.” Cardinal Mahony, she said, is a “symbol of this.”
A “global non-profit organization creating a mass social movement to end family breakdown” with no affiliation with the R.E.C., the Ruth Institute is not a stranger to controversial activism. The Southern Poverty Law Center has deemed the institute an extremist organization because of a pattern of incendiary comments related to the L.G.B.T. community, such as describing homosexuality as a “decision” and transgenderism as “a political act.”
Commentary from the institute has compared Christians who fail to oppose marriage equality for L.G.B.T. people to Catholic priests who were loyal to the Nazi regime in Germany. In 2017 the organization’s online donation processor dropped the institute as a client because of the promotion of “hate, violence, harassment or abuse.”
In an interview with America about the Mahony petition, founder Jennifer Roback Morse defended her organization’s positions. “I believe what Pope John Paul II says about human sexuality is correct, and certain things flow from that. I also get a lot of grief from people who don’t agree with my positions on divorce; that’s how I got into this work, my belief that traditional Christian morality protects the rights of children to both their parents.”
When it comes to Cardinal Mahony and the issue of his upcoming talk, though, Ms. Morse is deferential. “We respect him and his office,” she told America. “But right now the issue of clergy sexual abuse is so much in the news, and the issue of covering up.” Cardinal Mahony, she said, is a “symbol of this. Whether you could convict him in a court of law or not, he’s a symbol of covering up.” To this point, she noted the investigative work of The L.A. Times into these issues.
“I’ve been trying to look at this from a position of those who have been harmed,” she said. “And it occurred to me that he didn’t need to be on that platform. Out of respect for these people who have been harmed and who are vulnerable, particularly at this time, I just think it would be the decent thing to do to stay home.”
Cardinal Mahony did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article. Asked about the campaign to remove the cardinal from the R.E.C. program, archdiocesan communications director Carolina G. Guevara said in a statement that Cardinal Mahony remains a priest in good standing, “as has been clarified by the archdiocese on several occasions and covered in news outlets.”
“Out of respect for these people who have been harmed and who are vulnerable, particularly at this time, I just think it would be the decent thing to do to stay home.”
“While nothing can take away the very real harm that has been done by those who abused children and the vulnerable and by the church’s faults in addressing allegations of misconduct,” she said, “Cardinal Mahony was one of the first to not only apologize for the mistakes of the past, but also to establish some of the most strict policies for reporting and abuse prevention in the nation that continue today. He also personally met with victims and established the Victims Assistance Office to ensure that they would receive the support to help them through the healing process.”
Ms. Guevara also pointed out that this year’s R.E.C. will include workshops addressing issues surrounding abuse. “It is the hope that this will be an opportunity to foster healing and empowering our communities to prevent abuse in our local church.”
Cardinal Mahony has apologized for poor judgment in responding to allegations of sexual abuse by clerics under his watch, though his critics remain dissatisfied with his various efforts to explain his decisions regarding priest abusers. He has also regularly appeared at the Religious Education Congress, both before and since he was temporarily removed from public ministry by Los Angeles Archbishop José Gómez in 2013. “The cardinal has been a speaker at Congress for more than two decades as a leader on the issue of immigration, which is the topic of his 2019 presentation,” Ms. Guevara said.
But the point that Ms. Morse and others are making is that the church has dramatically changed in the last year. After the revelations about decades of abuse that emerged from a Pennsylvania grand jury report and the offenses committed by former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, clericalism, cover-up and ecclesial privilege have become public scandal to such a degree they threaten the credibility and future of the church.
And having a Catholic religious leader identified with cover-up and failure in his duty to care for young people speaking at the largest Catholic religious education event in the world? “The optics are bad,” said Ms. Morse.
Asked in a follow-up email interview if the presence of Cardinal Mahony or anyone else so closely associated with the abuse crisis might be problematic for the Religious Education Congress at this time, Ms. Guevara said: “The fact is that Cardinal Mahony was far ahead in establishing zero tolerance and other policies for the safeguarding of children. With the continued vigilance of volunteers and staff here in Los Angeles, we have seen that the system he put in place is working.
“Cardinal Mahony is speaking on the issue of immigration as a leading figure for reform and a voice for our immigrant community,” Ms. Guevara said. “Many in our community look forward to hearing and learning from him about the church’s position on immigration.” She added, however, that the archdiocese “understands the concerns that have been raised and are in the process of reaching out to those who have expressed their concerns.”
More than once in the last year Cardinal Mahony has stepped back from other engagements over similar concerns. Ms. Morse argues the same is appropriate here. “I think these people [victims of abuse] deserve more consideration than they’re being given.”
Others express similar concerns. “I have not sat on his [Cardinal Mahony’s] shoulder; I don’t know what he’s done and hasn’t done,” said Laure Krupp, a regular attendee at the Religious Education Congress who has worked in communications strategy for Catholic organizations in the Midwest and Oregon. “He’s always struck me as a decent guy. But I think sometimes when you’re a leader, you have to say, ‘I’m a point of contention here. If I remove myself, then people can get on and heal. And then maybe there’s a place for me in the future.’ If I were in his chair, that’s what I would do.”
But for her part Ms. Krupp said she has no time for pressure campaigns or Facebook blasts. “It’s really easy for me to sit in my little apartment and criticize and condemn. But it’s very hard to figure out how we can find our way out of this storm,” she said.
“That’s what I’m looking for. What’s that moment in the conversation; what’s that point where we can grip hands and say, ‘Yes, we believe this’ and build from there? It’s got to be there,” she said. “I know it’s there.
“We’re never going to get out of this harmful rhetoric if we don’t start rebuilding together.”