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By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES, Feb 15 (Reuters) - The archbishop of Los Angeles, who stripped his predecessor of duties last month over his handling of priest sex abuse cases, on Friday sent "warm wishes" as the former archbishop headed to Rome to help select a new pope amid the controversy.
Pope Benedict XVI surprised the world's Catholics on Monday by announcing plans to retire at the end of the month, and Cardinal Roger Mahony, the former archbishop of Los Angeles, declared he would take part in the process to select a successor, a move that angered victims rights groups.
The announcement by Mahony, 76, came less than two weeks after 12,000 pages of church files unsealed under court order showed that he and a top aide, Thomas Curry, worked to send priests accused of abuse out of state to shield them from law enforcement scrutiny in the 1980s.
"I am sure you will join me in extending your prayers and warm wishes for Cardinal Roger Mahony as he prepares to travel to Rome to exercise his sacred duty as Cardinal Elector of our next pope," Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez wrote in the letter.
"I am confident that Cardinal Mahony's accomplishments and experience in the areas of immigration, social justice, sacred liturgy and the role of laity in the church will serve the College of Cardinals well as it works to discern the will of the Holy Spirit in these deliberations that will lead to the election of our new pope," Gomez wrote.
Gomez also told the priests that despite media "confusion" over the status of Mahony and Curry, they "both remain bishops in good standing in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles."
"Both have full rights to celebrate the Holy sacraments of the church and to minister to the faithful without restriction," he wrote. "Cardinal Mahony has all of the prerogatives and privileges of his standing as a Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church."
David Clohessy, spokesman for the victims rights group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said he found Gomez's letter offensive.
"It's just rubbing more and more salt into the already deep and still fresh wounds of not just hundreds of victims but thousands of Catholics," Clohessy said. "And it's also revealing, it shows how little the hierarchy of the church has changed."
Gomez stripped Mahony, who was archbishop of Los Angeles from 1985 to 2011, of his public and administrative duties with the church on the same day that the priest abuse files were released. Curry also stepped down as bishop of Santa Barbara.
Mahony has apologized for "mistakes" he made as archbishop, saying he had not been equipped to deal with the problem of sexual misconduct involving children.
The Los Angeles archdiocese, which serves 4 million Catholics, reached a $660 million civil settlement in 2007 with more than 500 victims of child molestation in the biggest such agreement of its kind in the nation. (Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Leslie Adler)