LOS ANGELES (AP) - When Cardinal Roger Mahony was ordained nearly a half-century ago, the Roman Catholic church was in the throes of a modernization and renewal - and the lanky young priest who grew up near his family's poultry processing plant was seen as a leading liberal light for the times.
As a seminarian and young cleric, the Spanish-speaking Hollywood native celebrated Mass with Mexican fieldworkers, worked with Cesar Chavez to fight for better farmworker conditions and was appointed auxiliary bishop of Fresno, the heart of California's bread basket, at the tender age of 38.
Mahony retires Sunday and hopes to cement that legacy by dedicating himself fulltime to the fight for immigration reform. For many, though, the cardinal's career will instead be defined - and irreparably tainted - by a devastating clergy abuse scandal that unfolded on his watch, first as bishop of Stockton and then as head of nation's largest archdiocese.
The scandal, which resulted in a $660 million settlement with more than 500 plaintiffs, proved to be the biggest erosion of Mahony's authority in a church that had already shifted around him with a revived emphasis on orthodoxy and tradition. In his final years in Los Angeles, Mahony has been dogged by hundreds of lawsuits, criminal investigations into clergy abuse in the archdiocese and a bitter legal fight over sealed church files on some of the church's worst abusive priests.
Even in his final days as archbishop, newly uncovered allegations against an aging priest refocused attention on Mahony's role and forced the resignation of the archdiocese's vicar for clergy. Still, Mahony managed to hang on, unlike Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned as Boston archbishop over his failure to stop predatory priests.
"In a very paradoxical way, you contrast him with Cardinal Law, and I wonder if there aren't people in the Vatican who admired Mahony since he hung tough," said James Hitchcock, a St. Louis University historian who studies American Catholicism. "No one circled the wagons like Mahony."
Mahony declined repeated interview requests through his spokesman, Tod Tamberg. In response to e-mailed questions, Tamberg declined to comment on specific clergy abuse cases but said the cardinal does not remember the priest whose continued ministry led the vicar of clergy to resign earlier this month.
When Mahony entered the priesthood, the biggest news in the church was not clergy sex abuse, but the landmark Second Vatican Council, a series of meetings convened in the 1960s to modernize the church. He advanced rapidly in the hierarchy, becoming bishop of Stockton in 1980 and archbishop of Los Angeles in 1985, and was elevated to cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 1991.
The decades of Mahony's service defined an arc of dramatic change that saw the church shift from the more liberal attitudes of the 1960s to a centralized hierarchy under Pope John Paul II and a renewed embrace of tradition under Pope Benedict XVI. The selection of Archbishop Jose Gomez to take over after Mahony's 75th birthday underscores those changes: Gomez is a member of Opus Dei, the influential group favored by Pope John Paul II that fiercely defends church orthodoxy and authority.
"Cardinal Mahony was certainly among a group of bishops, if you had to break in one direction or another following the Second Vatican Council, who were more open to changing things," said Mark Brumley, chief executive of Ignatius Press and a former director of social ministries for the Diocese of San Diego. "I think as the church, we're finding the right balance between continuity and change. Cardinal Mahony was more in the change direction."
After being ordained in 1962, Mahony championed the cause of farmworkers as a young priest in Fresno, marching with Cesar Chavez, serving on the Mexican-American Council for Better Housing and leading the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board, where he oversaw the implementation of sweeping labor reforms for farmworkers.
He opposed an initiative that would have barred undocumented immigrants from most public services and supported legislation to allow them driver's licenses. Last year, the cardinal stood on a truck bed and chanted "Si se puede!" at a Los Angeles rally to protest Arizona's controversial immigration law.
The Catholic Education Foundation he founded in 1986 has given away more than $108 million in scholarships to disadvantaged children, said Tamberg.
"Over the years immigrant peoples have become very dear to me, and Jesus continues to call me to walk with them on their journey," Mahony wrote to his archdiocese last month.
By focusing on immigration, Mahony has tapped a deep vein that's critical to the future of the American Catholicism, said Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. Latinos account for much of the growth in the U.S. church in recent years and now comprise about a third of the nation's 65 million Catholics. Gomez, who like his predecessors is expected to be named a cardinal, will be the highest-ranking Latino bishop in the United States.
"I think his legacy will be as a prophetic voice on the immigration issue, on the importance of the Hispanics to the Catholic Church in the U.S. and on social justice," Reese said of Mahony. "This is where Jesus would be, on the side of the oppressed, on the side of the poor and on the side of those in need."
But Mahony's tenure in the hierarchy of the U.S. church also has a darker side: the clergy sex abuse scandal that first found its way to his door in Stockton in the early 1980s and then followed him to Los Angeles.
As bishop in Stockton, Mahony transferred the Rev. Oliver O'Grady to a new parish after the priest admitted during a therapy session to sexually molesting a young child. Mahony made the transfer despite a psychiatric evaluation that indicated the priest was sexually immature and might not be fit for the priesthood.
O'Grady continued to molest children at his new post, according to lawsuits, and served seven years in prison before being deported to his native Ireland, where he was arrested late last year on child pornography charges. To date, the Stockton diocese has paid nearly $21 million to O'Grady's alleged victims.
Tamberg declined to answer e-mailed questions about the O'Grady case, but in 2004 Mahony defended his decision, as reported by The Associated Press, saying that Stockton police "could not find any victim and they were not recommending any further steps be taken."
Once in Los Angeles, Mahony did not contact police or warn parishioners after the Rev. Michael Baker told him at a retreat in 1986 that he had molested two young boys. In a deposition taken last year, Mahony said he didn't alert anyone because the priest told him the children were illegal immigrants who had returned to Mexico.
After six months of treatment, Baker returned to a restricted ministry. The archdiocese has since paid millions to alleged victims of Baker, who pleaded guilty in 2007 to molestation and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Last year, he was called to testify before a federal grand jury investigating how the archdiocese handled claims of abuse.
Mahony has acknowledged mistakes in how he handled the Baker case in a church report about the clergy abuse scandal.
More than 500 plaintiffs who sued the church are still fighting in court to get access to the priests' confidential church files but nearly four years after the settlement, the files have still not been released.
Ray Boucher, the lead plaintiff's attorney, worked closely with Mahony to hammer out the record-breaking settlement and said the cardinal met personally with each victim who wanted to see him. At the time, Boucher said, he believed Mahony was sincere but now accuses the cardinal of stonewalling on the church files to protect himself from what they may reveal.
It's an allegation that Tamberg, the archdiocese spokesman, says is baseless.
"I had the hope and faith that he had changed and he could be a significant voice within the church for reform and for openness and transparency. I did believe that he would be that voice and I think he's betrayed that trust," Boucher said. "It's almost as if he had his fingers crossed and his hands behind his back."
AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll reported from New York City.