I have followed the news of Cardinal Roger Mahony with great sadness. Though he did not commit abuse, he covered up the abuse of others and, thereby, allowed it to continue. I feel a great deal of pain for those who looked to the church for spiritual and moral guidance and were literally abused in the process. The words of Jesus against those who cause little ones to go astray weigh heavily at this moment.
But I also cry for those priests that were not helped to understand their own sinfulness and kept away from children. Some might have been able to find places of service if they were not allowed to be in places where they could harm the young. Now they are now all broken men who have done great damage to their victims and have given the Church they served a bad name.
My pain extends to Cardinal Mahony. I was one of many who saw him do numerous good things. I marched with him on the streets of Los Angeles calling for immigration reform. I also had the privilege of being on the same platform with him at Fuller Seminary as we addressed this important issue. He had a strong commitment to the rights of the “foreigner” and took the bold stance of stating that the priests in his diocese would not obey HR 4437, the law proposed by Rep. James Sensenbrenner that would have made it a felony to walk alongside the undocumented. He also did a lot of work on behalf of farmworkers and others who were suffering at the hands of the rich and powerful. The Cardinal did more on behalf of immigrant and farmworker Latinos/a Catholics than most of the politicians that claim to be working on their behalf. Many Catholics in southern California will also remember his work on behalf of the Catholic school system and the new cathedral.
Nonetheless, most people will not remember the cardinal for the good he did, but for his cover-ups of abuse. Even those who dislike churches and religious institutions hold religious leaders to a higher standard. They are human, but we rightfully expect them to take their vocation vows seriously. Anyone who claims to serve in GodÂ´s name carries a higher responsibility and faces deeper consequences before God and humanity.
My crying continues because of the hubris represented in the Cardinal Mahony’s actions. Hubris is one of the great temptations for those in power, be it in religious, political, social or economic realms. It becomes easy to justify our actions and to assume that we can maintain control over situations. Instead of acting in humility and looking for accountability, leaders conclude that they can solve any situation and, as necessary, cover up any wrongdoing, “for the greater good.” And so innocent children are abused and their abusers are protected.
Our society rightly condemns the evil done by the abusing priests, but it must also face the fact that many others are not held accountable for their actions. Thousands of innocent people have been killed in the name of our national security; the rich and powerful spent years protecting a famous television personality who actually sexually abused many people. The world’s economic system was almost destroyed by the powerful few who refused to have any accountability for their actions. All of these leaders were acting from the same hubris that assumes that because one has power one can avoid public scrutiny and, if necessary, one can continue to “spin” the problem until it goes away or people focus on something else.
At the end of the day, I cry for the human condition. Cardinal Mahony reminds us that we all have feet of clay. But none of us wants to admit that we might have done the same thing under similar circumstances. And so it is that most of us will not remember that Cardinal Mahony worked alongside César Chávez on behalf of farmworkers who are abused by an economy that idealizes the farmer (e.g. the Super Bowl advertisement about farmers), but does not want to recognize that we eat cheap food because of the hard work of real farmworkers. Nor will we remember that he was a valiant voice on behalf of the immigrants who have been abused by all of us who benefit from the U.S. economy. Cardinal Mahony was a champion with clay feet.
Juan Martinez is a contributing fellow with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.