In This Case, Headline In LA Times Unfair To Cardinal Mahony

Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony certainly deserves his rightful share of criticism and rebuke for his handling of the church abuse scandal. However, a front-page headline in today's Los Angeles Times (Saturday, December 2, 2006) delivers an unfair and misleading impression over supposed "inaction" by the Cardinal.

Yesterday the Los Angeles Archdiocese announced it will pay a $60 million settlement to 45 people who say they were abused by Catholic priests. Today's Times reported the news with five articles and 5078 words. (Two articles are on the front page: one is the major headline at the top of the page, and another is at the fold. The five articles I've counted also include a 'Q&A' piece and a Church-bashing commentary by staffer Steve Lopez.)

One of the front-page articles is, "She can't forgive Mahony's inaction," by Times staffer John Spano. It is the sad and horrific story of 67-year-old Mary Dispenza Esfahan, who was raped at age 7 by her priest, George Neville Rucker. ("Rucker, now 86, was criminally charged in 2002 with 29 counts of molesting seven girls in Los Angeles during the 1970s.")

But what is "Mahony's inaction" that is spoken of in the headline? Is the Cardinal accused of covering up for Rucker's crimes? Is he accused of shuffling the criminal priest to other parishes where he abused other minors? Did Mahony ignore allegations that Rucker had molested kids? The article says none of this.

After a lengthy and heart-wrenching account of Ms. Esfahan's decades-long story, we don't learn of "Mahony's inaction" blared in the headline until the fourth-to-last paragraph of the article.

She [Esfahan] says she's forgiven Rucker — "He's sick, he's a pedophile" — and "I can forgive the church." But she can't forgive Cardinal Roger M. Mahony.

She said she wrote to Mahony two years ago and has yet to receive a response. "I'd like to tell him what this meant for me. I'd like to tell him how he's hurting the church," she said.

Dispenza has retired and is living in Seattle. She said there are long periods of her life of which she has no recollection.

It turns out that "Mahony's inaction" blared in a headline on the front page of the newspaper is the allegation that the Cardinal has not responded to a letter. Did Spano question the Cardinal or the archdiocese about the letter? Do we know if the Cardinal actually received and read the letter? The article doesn't say.

Again – Cardinal Mahony has a lot to answer to regarding the church abuse scandal. However, a front-page article trumpeting "Mahony's inaction" alongside major front-page news of a multi-million dollar settlement in the church abuse scandal gives a misleading impression. The headline would certainly give the casual reader the impression of a much more serious criminal "inaction" than not responding to a letter. According to the Times' own article, up until two years ago, Cardinal Mahony played almost no role at all in the decades-long story of the woman (Ms. Esfahan) whose picture graces the front page.

As sad and tragic as Ms. Esfehan's story is, the episode of "Mahony's inaction" – not answering a letter, apparently uninvestigated by the Times – is unworthy of its prominent front-page headline. It appears the Times' desire to attach a well-known name to a sad story outweighed their better judgment.