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New pope: Cardinal Mahony defends record on priest abuse

March 14, 2013 |  3:49 am

Cardinal Mahony stripped of public church duties

Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, in Rome for the selection of Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina as the new pope, praised the choice but also defended his record on handling priest abuse cases.

Mahony spoke as many Los Angeles Catholics rejoiced at the selection of the first pope from Latin America.

He said he thought it marked a historic change.

FULL COVERAGE: The papal conclave    

“This is unimaginable," Mahony said in an interview with KCBS. “The impact this is going to have, particularly, of course, in Latin America. It’s the first time we ever had a Southern Hemisphere pope. It’s just extraordinary.”

Records released earlier this year showed that Mahony and other church officials plotted to hide priests who abused children from police in the 1980s. Some critics had urged Mahony not to go to Rome to help select a pope.

Mahony defended his record in the KCBS interview. “Much of the criticism comes from ignorance of not knowing what has happened, and the extraordinary efforts we have taken. We have passed every compliance audit with flying colors," he told the station.

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The selection of Bergoglio marked a moment of jubilation at an otherwise precarious time for America’s largest archdiocese.

About 70% of the Catholic population in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles is Latino, and it’s not uncommon in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods to see signs proclaiming “Este hogar es catolico” or “This home is Catholic.”

“I never thought this would happen,” said Eduardo Ahamad, 56, who runs the Rincon Argentino grocery store in Glendale. He is of Mexican and Argentine descent and had expected the new pope to come from where so many others had: Italy.

INTERACTIVE: Choosing a new pope

“I was ready to run outside with my flag,” he said. “I can only imagine that Argentinians are celebrating.”

At a Spanish-language Mass at St. Emydius in Lynwood, parishioners applauded when the new pope emerged. But the clapping got much louder when they learned their new spiritual leader hailed from Argentina.

“It’s possible that he will understand other Latinos better,” Maria Ramirez, 65, said afterward in Spanish. “As the pope, he is the pope to the whole world, but I’m very pleased that he’s from Latin America.”

HISTORIC FRONT PAGES: News of a new pope

Another churchgoer, Teresa Gonzalez, 62, said she hoped the new pope would mark a new chapter for the church after “the abuse that’s happened.”

“Much of the faith of Catholic people is going down,” Gonzalez said.

Latin America has the largest share of the world's 1.2-billion Catholics, which some analysts said was likely a key factor in the selection of Bergoglio, who chose the papal name Francis.

Father Allan Figueroa Deck, a Latin American specialist at Loyola Marymount University, said Francis is poised to serve as a bridge between Europe and Latin America, just as his native country of Argentina has.

“It’s a very important development and it’s been a long time coming,” Deck said. “The seeds of Christianity that were planted 500 years ago in the Americas are finally manifesting themselves in the leadership of the church at the highest level.”

Francis, 76, has been applauded for modernizing an Argentine church that had been among the most conservative in Latin America. But he is no liberal theologian, denouncing gay marriage and adoptions by gay couples.

He is also known for his outreach to the poor and his austerity -- he spurned the ornate church mansion in Buenos Aires for a spartan downtown room where he cooks his own meals. He also rides the bus. Those qualities resonated with Carlos Madrid, 60, who had been hoping for a pontiff from Africa.

“He's lived among poverty, close to the poor,” Madrid said as he cut a man’s hair in his Huntington Park barbershop. “He knows the needs we have in this continent. The rich don't understand the life of the poor as well.”

Around noon Wednesday in Los Angeles, white smoke billowed out of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, signifying the selection of the new pontiff. At the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels downtown, bells clanged and workers hurried to adorn the main entrance with yellow and white bunting. Archbishop Jose Gomez held a special Mass at 12:10.

“So my brothers and sisters, habemus papam,” he said, using the Latin for "We have a pope."

On a sidewalk in Huntington Park, Sister Guadalupe Pablo, 32, saw the pope’s origins and choice of name as reasons to rejoice. The nun, who’s visiting from Mexico, was clad in brown vestments and selling rosaries and prayer cards for her order.

“We've never had a pope from Latin America, and beside that, our founder was St. Francisco de Assisi,” Pablo said, her pride evident. “Our new Holy Father is Pope Francisco I. We've never had a pope named Francisco.”

St. Francis of Assisi identified so strongly with the poor that he was known as “the Poverello,” or little poor man. “To our founder, all were his brothers,” Pablo said. “That the pope chose to identify with him means something beautiful."


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Photo: Cardinal Roger Mahony in 2010. Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times