Cardinal Mahony leaves to vote for pope despite plea from LA Catholic organization

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Hours before Cardinal Roger Mahony was scheduled to fly to Rome for the papal conclave, a Catholic organization delivered a petition Saturday to the church where he lives, urging the former archbishop to relinquish his role in selecting the next pope due to his role in helping conceal priest abuse. Mahony, who was also delivering a deposition Saturday, left for Rome to vote for the next pope later that day.

Catholics United presented the petition with nearly 10,000 signatures to a staff member at St. Charles Borromeo in North Hollywood.

“Cardinal Mahony, please stay home from the papal conclave and help bring healing to your people,” said Catholics United communications director Chris Pumpelly, adding that Mahony’s presence would “only bring clouds of shame in a time that should bring springs of hope.”

The Los Angeles archdiocese stripped Mahony of his public duties last month after internal church records indicated that he had conspired to hide evidence of clergy child molestation from authorities. Despite his rebuke, Mahony remains a priest in good standing and is one the 117 cardinals eligible to elect Pope Benedict XVI’s successor.

Before his departure for Rome, Mahony gave a closed-door deposition Saturday regarding his handling of clergy sex abuse. It was focused chiefly on the case of Father Nicolas Aguilar Rivera, a priest suspected of molesting as many as 26 children before fleeing to Mexico in 1988. This was Mahony’s first time discussing the scandal in court since the L.A. Archdiocese was forced by a court to release the documents that linked him to the scandal.

Catholics United was joined by representatives from the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP) in calling on Mahony to sit out the papal election.

“He’s sending the wrong message, that everything is fine and he can do whatever he wants,” said Virginia Zamora, clutching an old first communion photo of her son Dominic on the lap of his abuser, Father Michael Baker.

In 1986, Baker confessed to Mahony that he had molested two boys. Mahony worked to conceal Baker’s crimes and keep him in ministry. Authorities say Baker abused 23 children during his career.

SNAP’s regional director Joelle Castiex said that victims of clergy abuse and all Catholics should be appalled by Mahony’s participation in the upcoming conclave.

“Seeing him being able to go to the conclave is a slap in the face to every victim who was sexually abused here,” said Castiex, who was abused by a priest as a child. “It’s a slap in the face to every Catholic who wants a pope who will do their best to protect the most innocent and vulnerable around us.”

There have been concerned whispers over Mahony’s involvement from within the church hierarchy as well. Cardinal Velasio de Paolis, a Vatican official, described Mahony’s involvement in the conclave as a “troubling situation.”

Mahony showed no signs before leaving that he would heed the mounting pleas to stay home. On Friday, he tweeted, “Just a few short hours from my departure for Rome,” soliciting prayers. In a series of blog posts, he wrote about “the acceptance of being scapegoated” and the “humiliation” endured by Jesus Christ.

“It’s stomach-turning,” said Manny Vega, a victim of childhood abuse by a Catholic priest. “In his blogs, never do you see anything written about the victims. It’s all about poor me, poor me.”

Catholics United’s Pumpelly said Mahony isn’t the only Catholic leader facing scandal. He urged other cardinals “with a scandal on their conscience” to recuse themselves from the conclave as well. Philadelphia’s Justin Rigali and Ireland’s Sean Brady were involved in similar scandals, heading to Rome after allegedly helping cover up abuse.

“We have made our voice very clear, that there are Catholics in the pews who are hurting — and they would prefer that he stay home,” said Pumpelly. “At this point, it’s on his conscience.”

This story is one in an occasional series of reports by students taking part in a class of the USC Annenberg Knight Program on Media and Religion, headed by Diane Winston. Thanks to a grant from the Luce Foundation, Annenberg students have covered global religion, culture and politics for the past four years. This year's journalism class is headed to Ireland and Northern Ireland for 10 days in March and, in preparation, its students are covering Los Angeles' Catholic communities. The nine students are a mix of undergraduates, second year grad students and mid-career professionals. View more stories.

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