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LA's Cardinal Mahony calls himself 'scapegoat' ahead of deposition, conclave

Los Angeles' retired Cardinal Roger Mahony, who was rebuked last month for his handling of the sex-abuse crisis, suggests he was "scapegoated" in a blog post ahead of two important dates: his Saturday deposition in a lawsuit alleging that the church hierarchy protected a priest accused of molesting children and his trip to Rome to help pick the next pope.

The high-profile "prince of the church" is at the center of an outcry over several scandal-tainted cardinals being allowed to help choose who will succeed Pope Benedict XVI at next month's conclave at the Vatican.

Ireland's Sean Brady, Belgium's Godfried Danneels and Philadelphia's Justin Rigali have all been pilloried in the Italian press over allegations they failed to protect children from pedophiles -- but it's Mahony who has drawn the most ire.

A group called Catholics United started a petition against his attendance at the conclave. And an Italian consumer group requested Rome prosecutors open a criminal investigation into Mahony if he travels to the Vatican, the news agency ANSA reported Friday.

Improbable as that is, it underscores the outrage in some quarters that cardinals whose reputations have been battered by cover-up allegations will have an equal say in who will next lead the world's 1.3 billion Catholics.

NBC News' Vatican expert, George Weigel, said he could not recall similar calls for abstention at other conclaves, but he noted that voting is an obligation under church law and that other "less-than-admirable" figures have attended for more than a millennium.

"If people are looking for a perfect, sinless electorate to choose religious leadership, they should look somewhere else," Weigel said.

Mahony, who retired as head of the L.A. Archdiocese last year, was stripped of his remaining diocesan duties last month over his handling of priest sex abuse cases. He has repeatedly apologized for past mistakes but isn't bowing to pressure to skip the historic moment. No criminal charges have been filed against him.

He's raising eyebrows and hackles, however, with a series of blog posts about the rebuke.

In one this week, Mahony said he had tried to live out "the acceptance of being scapegoated, pointing out the necessary connection between humiliation and redemption."

"This scandal is putting us, the clergy and the church, where we belong -- with the excluded ones," he added. "Jesus was painted with the same brush as the two thieves crucified with him."

The Surviviors Network of those Abused by Priests slammed the language.

"It's hurtful and disingenuous for Mahony to claim he's been scapegoated," said director David Clohessy. "He's been a bishop for almost 40 years and the sole head of America's largest archdiocese for more than a quarter century. Few, if any, U.S. Catholic prelates have been more powerful than Mahony. So for him to somehow pretend to be a powerless pawn is pathetic."

Fueling the latest round of criticism of Mahony is last month's release of reams of confidential personnel files that, according to Reuters, showed Mahony and an aide, Thomas Curry, worked to send priests accused of abuse out of California to shield them from law enforcement scrutiny in the 1980s.

In a letter to the archdiocese about the documents and his dismissal, Mahony said that he had worked hard since 1989 to toughen guidelines for handling abuse and apologized for missteps before that.

"I have stated time and time again that I made mistakes, especially in the mid-1980s," he wrote. "I apologized for those mistakes, and committed myself to make certain that the Archdiocese was safe for everyone."

The document release -- part of a $660 million settlement with abuse victims struck in 2007-- has set the stage for this weekend's deposition by Mahony in a lawsuit by a 35-year-old man who says he was molested by a priest in the late 1980s.

The suit alleges that church officials effectively let the Rev. Nicholas Aguilar Rivera escape to Mexico after child sex-abuse complaints were made, the Associated Press reported. He remains a fugitive.

One 1988 memo made public last month revealed a top Mahony lieutenant confided that he told Rivera “it was likely the accusations would be reported to the police and that he was in a good deal of danger."

The plaintiff’s lawyer, Anthony De Marco, will have four hours to question Mahony about Rivera and 25 other priests, attempting to show a pattern of cover-up so he can try to collect punitive damages on behalf of his client.

Then, within days, Mahony will fly to Rome to join 116 other cardinals under the age of 80 who will meet twice a day in the Sistine Chapel to elect the next pontiff.

"Mahony’s bad luck is all of these documents were released right before the pope resigned and this is why people are going after him instead of other people," said Father Thomas Reese, author of "Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church."

He said there was virtually no chance Mahony would be pressured to stay away.

"The last one turned away from a conclave was in the time of the Napoleon," he said.

"If Mahony can't go, then there's a whole list of other cardinals who maybe can't go, and if you say these guys can't attend for this reason, then what about other reasons."

Even after sidelining him, the L.A. Archdiocese backed Mahony's voyage to Rome. In a statement, it portrayed Catholics United as a fringe group and its petition as pointless.

"Cardinal Mahony will travel to Rome to fulfill his sacred duty under church law to vote for the next pope,” it said.