LOS ANGELES -- Speaking with a compassion born from years of working with the migrant poor, Cardinal Roger Mahony addressed a crowd in English and Spanish last spring as he paid tribute to the late labor activist Cesar Chavez.
The speech contrasted with one delivered two years before, when a humbled, embattled Mahony appeared at his boyhood parish in Hollywood and asked forgiveness for ''not taking swifter action" to remove priests from the ministry who had been accused of sexual abuse.
The two addresses underscore a contradiction some see in Mahony, leader of the 4.2 million Roman Catholics who constitute the nation's largest archdiocese.
Mahony, 68, has been considered a voice for the dispossessed ever since he supported farm workers' rights in the 1960s. But he draws sharp criticism from those who feel he protects the church at the expense of sexual abuse victims and others who disapprove of his fight to keep internal church documents secret.
The Catholic Church faces nearly 1,000 clergy sex-abuse lawsuits in California, including almost 500 in Los Angeles.
Mahony, who declined an interview for this article but answered 16 of 22 written questions, is likely to receive increased scrutiny as a result of the suits in Los Angeles and dioceses where he served previously.
He was deposed Tuesday about his supervision of priests in the Stockton, Fresno, and Monterey dioceses where he worked before coming to Los Angeles.
''He has had a long, long history of knowing about sexual abuse in his diocese," said Richard Sipe, a former monk and author of books on celibacy.
But others think the cardinal is more a victim of softhearted impulses and massive miscalculations.
He has treated priests ''with the same kind of generosity and spirit of forgiveness that he wants to see society show toward the marginalized," said David Gibson, author of ''The Coming Catholic Church."
Mahony moves easily among Hispanic parishioners, holds Mass in fluent Spanish, and speaks for those on the edge of society, from migrant workers to recent Vietnamese immigrants.
Some compare Mahony to Boston's now-departed Cardinal Bernard F. Law. Like Mahony, Law was popular with parishioners -- and he worked tirelessly for civil rights as a Mississippi priest in the 1960s. But he became a divisive figure in Boston when it was revealed that for years he had covered up for predator priests.
Mahony is shadowed by decisions about the careers of at least three men.
In 1987, Mahony transferred a priest accused in a church report of ''indiscreet conduct with young boys" to a hospital chaplain's post in Los Angeles. The chaplain was later accused of abusing an 11-year-old boy and awaits trial.
Mahony also transferred another priest who had told him he molested young boys. Later, Mahony approved a $1.25 million settlement with two boys and a new criminal investigation of the alleged molester is underway in Los Angeles.
Mahony said he would not answer questions about those cases while investigations continue. He cited a report in which the archdiocese said it knows of only three priests who were accused of reoffending after they were reported for abuse and underwent psychological treatment.
In another case, in Stockton, Mahony transferred a young priest to a rural parish after the priest admitted sexually molesting a young child.
Two of Oliver O'Grady's victims subsequently sued the Stockton Diocese and won $7.5 million in a landmark 1998 trial during which Mahony testified.
O'Grady pleaded guilty to abuse in 1993, served seven years in prison, and was deported to his native Ireland.