Through his well-chronicled derelictions of duty, Roger Mahony, the cardinal emeritus of Los Angeles, placed a number of ticking time bombs near his successor's feet. Last week, one of them went off.
Archbishop Jose Gomez, who replaced Mahony last year, announced that Los Angeles auxiliary bishop Gabino Zavala had submitted his resignation to the Vatican after fessing up about two children he fathered years before.
The media fatuously describes this scandal as Archbishop Gomez's first "controversy." But it belongs entirely to his predecessor. Cardinal Mahony appointed Zavala to his position in 1994. Did Cardinal Mahony know about Zavala's children? (The Los Angeles archdiocese has described the children as teenagers living in "another state.")
It is no secret that Cardinal Mahony sat on secrets, most of them involving pedophile priests. He even knowingly retained a pedophile priest on his own staff -- Fr. Carl Sutphin, who served as an associate pastor at the Los Angeles Cathedral until media coverage of the abuse scandal forced Mahony to drop him.
So it is hardly impertinent to ask: What did Cardinal Mahony know about Zavala and when did he know it?
In 2005, Zavala went on a mysterious "sabbatical." "Mahony gives bishop a break," reported the website L.A. Catholic, which flagged the curious item in the diocesan newspaper, The Tidings.
According to the announcement, Zavala was taking the sabbatical for "spiritual and theological renewal, an ecclesial experience and time for the exploration of personal interests and talents." It added that his July-to-December break would include a jaunt to Rome, where he hoped "to explore in depth the ecclesial and cultural history of the Church," and a trip to Brazil where he hoped "to experience the Church in Latin America in its work for justice."
Was this elaborately described sabbatical just one big euphemism for a Mahony-sanctioned Zavala visit to his secret family? Los Angeles parishioners have a right to know; they paid for it.
Archdiocesan spokesman Tod Tamberg told The Los Angeles Times that no Church money had been misused on Zavala's children (though the archdiocese now hastily promises to pay for their college education). Really? No money that parishioners ponied up for Zavala's priestly salary and self-explorations went to visiting his kids? Tamberg's claim deserves a skeptical review.
Naturally, the proudly progressive Los Angeles media has shown no interest in this side of the story, preferring instead to cast Zavala, a darling of left-wing Catholics for his leadership of the pacifist group Pax Christi, as a victim of the Church's celibacy requirement. Here is a classic bit of bald bias masquerading as faux-objective reporting from The Los Angeles Times:
Zavala's resignation is likely to spark renewed debate over the ecclesiastical laws of celibacy. The earliest popes -- St. Peter himself, under some interpretations -- were married men and fathers. Later, in the 4th century, church officials decided that men who were not celibate "shall be deprived of the honor of the clerical life."
The idea was to mimic the sacrificing, chaste life of Jesus -- for priests to be married, in a sense, to the church. But in recent years, hundreds of theologians have argued that the rules are dated and needlessly restrictive. "It's self-evident: celibacy does not work," said Father Richard McBrien, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. Younger priests influenced by conservative Vatican administrators in recent years "think celibacy is the crown jewel of the priesthood," he said. "That's nonsense." A.W. Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine priest and retired psychotherapist in La Jolla, said there was "no question" that Zavala's case raises questions about celibacy standards, and he said he hoped it would spark an overdue review. "I want it discussed openly and honestly," he said.
The Zavala scandal certainly raises issues but not these.
It raises far more basic and immediate ones, such as: Why did Roger Mahony appoint an open dissenter on the Church's moral teachings -- Zavala is known to have supported a gay-rights group protesting the Church's teaching on homosexuality -- as one of his auxiliary bishops in the first place? And did Cardinal Mahony cover up for him, thereby delaying a devastating scandal until after he left office?
It is beyond dispute that Cardinal Mahony during his long tenure worked hard to conceal the pasts of pedophile priests. Did he hide Zavala's too?