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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

The Shame Of Mahony

Matt Pressberg |
February 5, 2013 | 2:56 p.m. PST


The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels was Mahony's mark on the L.A. landscape. (Friar's Balsam/Flickr)
The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels was Mahony's mark on the L.A. landscape. (Friar's Balsam/Flickr)
Mild kudos to Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez for coming out strongly against his predecessor, Cardinal Roger Mahony, who had been involved in covering up and abetting child sexual abuse for decades. Kudos for the unprecedented shaming of a colleague of that rank, mild for coming not a minute before church was ordered by a judge to release to the public its internal files detailing this sordid history.

Mahony responded to Gomez’ letter in the manner one would expect of a lifetime organization man. In a blog post, he wrote “Nothing in my own background or education equipped me to deal with this grave problem.”

He’s right. Nothing in his background or education could have equipped him to deal with this problem because the equipment needed to deal with it doesn’t come from background or education. It comes from values. Mahony’s values turned out to put his organization above all.

No term has been more mangled and distorted by American political discourse than “values” (“family values” seems to now mean something like the Saudi position on gay marriage), but in this case, Mahony’s decisions came down to his values in the literal sense of the word. He knew what was happening and he knew it was wrong. He chose, freely, to protect the organization (and his prestigious position in it) over protecting young children. That is the value judgment he made.

We expect more from an archbishop. We expect more leadership from those in leadership positions, but too often such roles are filled with those who were driven by pure ambition from the start, or those who may have started with the best intentions but fall in love with the glory and prestige of the job.

Very few organizations do prestige as conspicuously as the Catholic Church. Aside from maybe Wall Street, none is more obsessed with titles. After reaching the mountaintop—literally, with the cathedral Mahony was instrumental in getting built atop Bunker Hill—Mahony was never going to take down the supporting structure that propelled him there. His professed loyalty was to God, but his actual loyalty was to his professional status and exclusive club he became a member of.

Mahony’s blog post, full of CYA syntax and semantics, reminded me of the words of another famous Catholic leader of similar vintage who also dealt ignominiously with a child sex abuse scandal.

In an interview with the Washington Post shortly before he died, former Penn State football coach defended his woefully inadequate response to hearing news of sexual abuse by a longtime assistant coach this way:

“I didn’t know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was,” he said.

University procedure, which he was powerful enough to shape, had helped to ensconce Paterno on his revered perch. Like Mahony, Paterno also had a cathedral built, in his case, one holding 100,000 rabid fans. His adoring throngs were no less devoted than Mahony’s, and Paterno clearly relished the glory. If he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have stuck around in such a high-visibility job for so long.

The honorable and humane thing for Paterno, and Mahony, to do was to report these abuses, organizational loyalty be damned. But organization men don’t act like that; they act in their rational best interest. In these cases, looking out for number one meant looking away from evil number twos.

We expect true leadership, but a society gets the leaders it deserves. When we glorify titans of business as leaders beyond the boardroom, we co-sign their sensibilities. These most successful of organization men are naturally going to value protecting their organizations, and by proxy their lofty positions within them.

In an informal morning chat, former Los Angeles Times editor Michael Parks referred to Mahony as a “corporate prelate” and compared his frequent breakfast chats with the archbishop to talking to a bank executive. The bank executive in many ways defines our public perception of how leaders act, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Mahony’s mannerisms would be similar. However, the people this social bias causes us to view as leaders are often just callow administrators driven by nothing nobler than financial or power-based self-interest.

The corporate priest proved to be a model corporate leader, protecting his company and coworkers to the bitter end. The corporate coach proved himself to be the same. Definining leadership in these corporate terms gives us leaders like this.

The Catholic Church’s main role in Los Angeles is to serve a community seeking guidance. Under the misguided rule of Mahony, it lost sight of this purpose and focused on protecting the institution.

If a child rape epidemic needs to be covered up to protect an organization, maybe it’s not an organization worth protecting. If it’s that broken, it needs to be fully remodeled, not given a patchwork fix.

After the Northridge quake rendered the former St. Vibiana cathedral unsafe, Mahony mobilized his power and got the city to build a new cathedral with a strong foundation built to withstand the seismic changes under Los Angeles. If only he had presided over an organization with such solid footing.

Read more of Neon Tommy's coverage of Mahony here.

Reach Editor-at-Large Matt Pressberg here.



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