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"The difference is that now the people have access to evidence of Mahony's misdeeds," McKiernan said. "Sadly, we see the church acting ethically in these matters only when its actions become known."

Critics also noted that Mahony, who turns 77 later this month, is retired, and Curry, 70, is an assistant bishop with a much lower profile. And Bishop Robert W. Finn of Missouri, who was convicted last September of failing to report a priest suspected of abuse to authorities, has remained in office and unpunished by the church despite his unprecedented guilty plea.

Still, the action by Gomez against Mahony is surprising and nearly unprecedented. Church observers say Gomez must have had clearance from Rome for such a move, and the Vatican's spokesman, Federico Lombardi, said Friday that "the Vatican is aware of the Los Angeles diocese's latest decisions but this matter is in the hands of the local archbishop."

But the developments still raise many questions—one being Mahony's exact standing in the church now.

Under the policies of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, priests who are credibly accused of abuse are barred from public ministry, which means that even if they are not defrocked they cannot say Mass in public or wear their clerical dress or present themselves as a cleric.

Archdiocesan spokesman Tod Tamberg said that is not the case with Mahony. Tamberg said he "remains a priest in good standing, and a cardinal of the church. He can celebrate the sacraments with no restrictions."

Tamberg said that Mahony, who lives at a North Hollywood parish, has canceled his schedule of confirmation Masses and is reducing his speaking engagements around the country; Mahony has lectured widely on immigration issues and the future of the church since retiring in March 2011. Mahony remains eligible to vote for a new pope until he turns 80, in three years.

At the Vatican, Lombardi noted that the suspension does not affect the "other duties assigned by the pope to Cardinal Mahony in the Curia."

Jerry Filteau of the National Catholic Reporter also noted that the church's Code of Canon Law gives cardinals a privileged position and even says that they are "exempt from the power of governance of the bishop of the diocese in which they are residing."

"While that law does not clearly exempt cardinals from all decisions on local ecclesiastical activity, it sets an unusually high bar against banning a cardinal from engaging in church activities in the diocese where he resides," Filteau wrote.

The Los Angeles case inverts some of the usual assumptions about church politics in that Mahony, who was archbishop from 1985 to 2011 and a cardinal since 1991, was known as something of a liberal in the hierarchy, advocating for immigration reform and economic justice issues.

Gomez, on the other hand, is associated with the conservative Opus Dei society and is seen as a loyal defender of orthodoxy.

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