Man Who Keeps the Secrets
By Jason Berry
San Francisco California [San Francisco CA]
Downloaded September 22, 2005
When San Francisco's archbishop was called to Rome to become the church's top cop, few were aware that William Levada has worked tirelessly throughout his career to protect sexual predator priests. Longtime church watcher Jason Berry tracks Levada and his spectacular promotion and asks: Why, by God, don't the church's top leaders get it?
By Jason Berry
Good Friday is a hallowed day in the Christian calendar, when churches the world over commemorate Jesus's death on the cross. This year it fell on March 25, which coincided with an unseemly spectacle for the Roman Catholic Church at the San Francisco County Courthouse. A civil jury returned a $437,000 verdict for Dennis Kavanaugh, who had been sexually abused by a priest, often, as an altar boy many years before. The priest was dead; the archdiocese and its insurance carriers would pay. At 5 p.m. the media, court watchers, and restless men and women from a group called SNAP—Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests—waited in the hallway for Kavanaugh and his lawyers to make public statements.
As he watched the trial, a 46-year-old Bay Area real estate developer named Dan McNevin rewound a mental film track to his own adolescence and a different priest who had traumatized him as an altar boy in Fremont. McNevin felt the old anger flooding back, the black stuff that years of therapy had taught him to stanch. There he sat, with a good property portfolio, watching Kavanaugh, who had sunk from a $90,000-a-year perch as an electronics salesman to a $16-an-hour job doing landscape work. Kavanaugh had given humiliating testimony on how his marriage had hit the skids, rage ate at him, and he had even threatened his wife with a gun. For that he spent a year in jail; his career tanked, as did his marriage. McNevin had gone to enough SNAP meetings to know how self-destructive some survivors can be.
As the courthouse news conference was about to begin, McNevin's cell phone rang. He stepped away from the din. "This is Archbishop Levada," came the voice at the other end.
"What?" blurted McNevin. For all of SNAP's in-your-face politics, the last caller McNevin expected was the man his group saw as the imperious face of a church that had betrayed them.
Two days earlier, McNevin and 20 SNAP activists had staged a protest in front of Saints Peter and Paul, at Washington Square Park, the parish run by priests of the Salesian order. The associate pastor, Father Stephen Whelan, has been sued by a man he allegedly molested as a 14-year-old student at Salesian High in Richmond during the same time McNevin was being abused by another priest 40 miles away. SNAP wanted to expose Whelan as a risk to kids. McNevin wrote to Archbishop William Levada demanding that he remove Whelan from the church.
A clutch of journalists covered the protest. "It's a spurious accusation," Whelan told ABC7's investigative reporter Dan Noyes inside the rectory. When Noyes and his crew went into the sunlight, McNevin upped the ante: "For Bishop Levada to leave this man in the ministry, to allow him to be in a landmark San Francisco institution, where there's a school, a park, kids, it just kind of defies imagination." The archdiocese had no comment, but the pastor at the parish insisted Whelan was innocent and kids faced no danger.
Now the archbishop was on the phone. "You wrote me a letter," Levada said, telling McNevin that since he now knew "about this man at Saints Peter and Paul, I'm going to talk to Father Purdy at the [Salesian] provincial and do something about it."
In the adrenaline rush of the news event, McNevin was uncharacteristically at a loss for words. "Great," he managed to say. "That's what we want."
As the noise level rose, McNevin thanked Levada and said he would call back, he really wanted to talk. Then he went to the press conference.
The next week McNevin phoned Levada's office twice and sent an email, but he never heard back. In the meantime, Whelan stayed on the job while the church dug in for a November trial. The Salesians have a history of housing accused priests. Around the corner from Levada's residence on Peter Yorke Way, their provincial headquarters was home to four other clerics facing civil charges and even one convicted sex offender. As such trials against the archdiocese continued, and attorneys negotiated over settlements for victims in some 60 cases, Levada stayed as far from the media on the topic as he could.
And then, as if by magic, soon after the white smoke heralded a new pope, Levada was no longer just another sorry bishop, mired in the church's worst scandal since the Protestant Reformation. Pope Benedict XVI (formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) lowered a rope ladder to lift him up from the provincial muck, away to the Eternal City; he would be in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly known as the Holy Office). He would take Ratzinger's place as the church's top theologian, investigating priests suspected of straying from the Vatican line.
Why did Levada get such a spectacular promotion? This question intrigues many church insiders, including hard-nosed plaintiff attorneys immersed in the pedophilia crisis, which has cost the U.S. church $1 billion and counting. Of all men, why Bill Levada, a relatively obscure San Francisco archbishop?
"He has a first-rate mind," says Salt Lake City bishop George Niederauer, a seminary classmate and longtime friend of Levada's. "He's very insightful, analytical, and he has a good sense of humor." But others are unimpressed. "Archbishop Levada is not an established theologian," says Father Richard McBrien, a professor of theology at Notre Dame. "He rarely if ever published scholarly books and articles. It appears the new pope chose Archbishop Levada because they worked together more than 20 years ago and have apparently remained in touch."
That's another way of saying he lacks the customary credentials but has the right friends. After earning his doctorate in theology at the Jesuit-run Gregorian University in Rome, young Father Levada worked on Cardinal Ratzinger's staff at the Holy Office.
But there may be another reason the new pope turned to Levada. With the priest abuse scandal exploding all around, he needed someone with decades of on-the-ground experience, in a country where the church's legal wars have been the most costly and the most protracted.
For years Pope John Paul II had largely ignored the scandal, making only a few scattered comments. In 2001, however, he invested Ratzinger's office with the sole authority to defrock predatory priests. Ratzinger, who once had blamed the media for overstating the problem, soon began to adjust his views. Perhaps sensing that he would become the next pope, the cardinal said in a sermon last Good Friday: "How much filth there is in the church, and even among those...in the priesthood."
So Levada is now at the center of the Vatican's struggle to reverse this scandal. When he gets to Rome he'll face hundreds of cases of priests accused of abuse. How qualified is he for that job?
Levada refused to be interviewed for this article. In April, his spokesman, Maurice Healy, cited "delicate" legal negotiations over the 60 lawsuits the archdiocese was facing, and he rebuffed later requests as well, despite our promises not to discuss pending litigation. And in San Francisco he was something of a cipher. Unlike some bishops, Levada didn't try to bully prochoice Catholic politicians or promote himself as a hot-button media figure. A devotee of the opera, Levada seemed a cultivated moderate, deftly negotiating local controversies. He won high marks, for example, for defusing the domestic partner issue, reframing gay unions as an issue of household insurance rights.
But a deeper look at Levada reveals a man who's used many of the same tactics other bishops have in response to the abuse scandal, tactics for which they have been pilloried in the press and dragged into the courts. He's hidden the identities of accused predators, recycled some after sending them for a bout of therapy and left others in their posts, including one who became a top consultant on the abuse scandal. He's also punished whistle-blowers. Yet with the exception of recent cover stories in SF Weekly, Levada has largely escaped banner headlines.
Had Levada been subjected to the sustained scrutiny that Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston was, he might have been passed over for the new job. The Boston cardinal, who resigned in an avalanche of bad press, was one of Levada's mentors; so was Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, whose archdiocese is facing 550 cases involving about 135 priests, some of whom were shipped off to treatment centers and back into parishes where they allegedly abused again. Law left in disgrace, a Nixonian icon of cover-up, and Mahony's reputation has been further battered by revelations that he placed an accused Irish priest, who eventually went to jail for seven years, into an unsuspecting Stockton parish—even after the archdiocese promised he would be removed.
What is it in the mind-set of these men—Law, Mahoney, and hundreds of other bishops, cardinals, and religious order superiors, including Levada—that has kept them from doing what you or I would do if people in our employ were accused, or even suspected, of preying on children? Why did they ignore moral decay for decades, despite clear warnings that a crisis would become public, cost the church billions, and damage their careers? And why do they hold such firm allegiance to a code of sexual secrecy and to the celibate power structure that helped create the crisis?
The truth is, Levada's training did not prepare him to honestly confront the disaster. He dealt with threats to the ecclesiastical culture as bishops all around him did. He was taught to keep the secrets, he did, and in a system that rewards loyalty over integrity, he stands now as the highest-ranking American in the history of the Roman Catholic Church.
Born in 1936 in Long Beach, William Levada went to seminary in Los Angeles and spent much of his early career working and teaching in Southern California. But his identity as a churchman was shaped in Rome. As a priest, his formative experience was in the office he now heads, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—the old seat of the Roman Inquisition. He works in the building where Galileo was tried for heresy. You could say that's where he was first initiated into the club, a closed system with an elitist ethos of secrecy.
"What's so interesting about Levada," says Patrick Wall, a canon lawyer and former Benedictine monk who bolted the club, "is that because he worked at the Holy Office, he would have had a greater exposure to this [whole culture] than any other West Coast bishop."
Staffers at the Congregation take a vow to the pope, swearing never to speak publicly of what they do. These vows protect theologians from being publicly identified while they are under investigation, but they also cloak a system scornful of academic freedom.
Although Levada says he didn't deal with pedophilia cases back then, a similarly arcane policy had developed around that explosive issue one year after his ordination in Rome. In 1962, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, a famous reactionary who ran the Holy Office, oversaw the creation of a 39-page, single-spaced Instruction on the Manner of Proceeding in Cases of Solicitation—churchspeak for sexually abusive clerics. The Instruction stipulates that it must "be diligently stored in the secret archives" of a diocese; reports of abuse must be sent to the Holy Office. Bishops must ensure that "the oath of keeping the secret must be [also] given...by the accusers"—meaning that victims must be convinced to swear not to tell anyone outside the church of their abuse.
Few bishops actually sent files on abusive priests to the Holy Office, though not out of defiance. "The bishops didn't want Rome to know they had these problems," explains Wall, a senior researcher for Manly Maguire, a Costa Mesa law firm with scores of clergy abuse clients. "The best way to advance in the hierarchy was to have nothing go wrong on your tour of duty." Wall left the Benedictines after assignments in which he had to clean up after hundreds of abusive priests. "Also, by the 1990s, with the number of priests sharply declining, there was tremendous pressure on bishops to keep as many of them in parishes as possible, even ones who were known offenders," he adds. "Otherwise they had priestless parishes, which would be seen as a failure on the bishops' part."
Although they didn't often follow Ottaviani's orders to the letter, the bishops did keep the existence of the document itself a secret for 41 years. Many today claim they never saw it; some are probably telling the truth. But they generally adhered to Ottaviani's principles, concealing sex offenders and urging parents not to speak with police. When the document found its way to the media in 2003, victims' attorneys seized on it as a smoking gun, proof that the Vatican had a blueprint for handling pedophiles behind a wall of secrecy.
When Levada returned in the mid-eighties from a second tour of duty in Rome, the issue of clergy child molesters was just surfacing—and the first glimmers of reform were quashed. In 1985, soon after he became an auxiliary bishop in Los Angeles, Levada met a rebellious Dominican priest and canon lawyer at the Vatican Embassy in Washington, D.C., Father Tom Doyle, who was trying to get the hierarchy to confront the issue. Doyle, then 40, was gathering facts on litigation faced by bishops and had been consulting with an attorney, Ray Mouton, and a psychiatrist-priest, Michael Peterson. The three men drafted a report on the medical, legal, and moral issues posed by abusive clerics.
Along the way, Doyle won encouragement from Boston's influential Cardinal Law. That spring, as the two men conferred, Doyle warned that the burgeoning lawsuits posed a huge risk if bishops did not forge a policy to clean house. Doyle wanted to present the report to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at their June 1985 meeting. Law told Doyle to show a draft to the secretary of his committee within the conference: the new auxiliary bishop in Los Angeles, Bill Levada.
The confidential report pulled no punches. It warned that without a proactive policy, the church could face $1 billion in losses over the next decade. "To allow a priest to continue to function, endangering the health of children, following the receipt of private, confidential knowledge that this priest victimized a child is considered to be 'criminal neglect' (a crime in many states)," the authors wrote. They recommended treatment for sex offenders in mental facilities, counseling for the victimized families, and transparency with the media.
In May of that year, the four men—Doyle, his two coauthors, and Levada—met in the Marriott Hotel at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. In a recent deposition with plaintiff attorney Jeff Anderson, Levada struck a tone of detachment about the meeting.
"I was there as a point of reference, as a listener," Levada testified, "to bring back a report...to Cardinal Law. I don't recall whether I told them I thought [the report's plan] was a good idea or not....I tried to do my assignment. But I did not have enough information to make a judgment about this issue at that time."
A few days later, Doyle was in Montreal to perform the baptism of a niece when he got a call from Levada in Los Angeles, saying that Cardinal Law's committee would not be handling the issue after all. "I realized the fix was in," says Doyle. "Levada was carrying the message from the leadership, and they didn't want to deal with it." Doyle was appalled; he made sure that a copy of the report was sent to every diocesan bishop in the country. Several weeks later, Doyle, who is now an expert witness against bishops in legal actions, was sacked from his job at the Vatican Embassy and became an Air Force chaplain. Had he kept his mouth shut he would probably be a cardinal today.
A year later Levada got his first job as archbishop, in Portland, where for nine years he was deep in the crisis. One of his strategies was to send accused priests off for therapy, then quietly return them to active ministry. He also played hardball with the church's general counsel. Robert McMenamin represented the archdiocese from 1983 to 1989, a period when Portland faced one of its worst priest abuse scandals. When Levada arrived in 1986, Father Tom Laughlin was in jail after molesting a series of altar boys. Three previous archbishops had known about Laughlin but had done nothing to restrict his ministry or inform the police. McMenamin knew about this and had been working to get the church to confront the problem. When Levada arrived, McMenamin urged him to start advising church officials of their obligation to report abuse to authorities, but Levada declined.
Disgusted, McMenamin eventually resigned his church position and started representing abuse victims—which Levada wasn't happy about. Levada, claiming conflict of interest, petitioned the Oregon State Bar Association to disqualify McMenamin from taking such cases. But the Oregon Supreme Court dismissed his claim as unfounded. In a letter McMenamin sent to his replacement at the diocese, he attacked the church's obsession with secrecy. "You speak of loyalty. If this means I should not help victims who have been turned away by church authorities, then I think your statement is ridiculous and inhumane. I have loyalty to both my religion and the confidences of former clients, but not to church officials who deny justice to victims."
Levada moved south to San Francisco in the middle of 1995 at the behest of the papal nuncio, or Vatican ambassador in Washington. Then-archbishop John Quinn was reeling from the fallout after Monsignor Patrick O'Shea, a popular pastor, was arrested for abusing nine boys and stealing $187,000 in church funds, and Levada was called in to manage the crisis. (Quinn took early retirement that October, and Levada was made archbishop.)
"I have to apologize," he quipped at his debut press conference. "I packed very quickly and did not have time to bring my full Darth Vader outfit."
But there was little levity as victims sued the church because of O'Shea and, in time, other priests. Levada's basic strategy remained the same: to keep the lid of the crisis as tightly sealed as possible. He got rid of a few accused priests, but the information policy was highly guarded—no full accounting on their names, their whereabouts, or how much money it was costing the church to defend and shelter them and to settle their cases. His punishment of a whistle-blower led to exactly the type of encounter Doyle and his colleagues foretold in 1985: that a priest would one day sue his bishop for trying to silence his allegations of abuse against another priest.
John Conley, 61, a stout, bearded man with a keen sense of irony, was the youngest of seven in a Detroit Catholic family. As a boy, Conley wanted to be a priest, but his high school grades weren't great, and he was stricken with cancer soon after graduation. "Seminary didn't want me," he says. Following radiation treatment, he got his BA and eventually a law degree. After working as a lawyer for 17 years, he decided to seek his true calling.
Conley was 44 in 1988 when he entered St. Patrick Seminary in Menlo Park. The seminary was different from the disciplined spaces of a generation before. "It was a gay environment," he recalls. "The faculty would always teach respect for homosexuals and were on the lookout for homophobia. Some were not gay, but you had to be comfortable with it." Conley says he once created a stir by complaining about a priest who seemed to be grooming an adult student for a relationship, taking him to fine restaurants and on weekend trips. The priest was eventually replaced.
Five years after entering seminary Conley was ordained; he became assistant pastor at St. Catherine of Siena in Burlingame in 1997. The pastor, James Aylward, was highly conservative, and from the start, he and Conley didn't click. "He gave me a rundown on whom to like and not like on the staff," Conley says. "I told him in polite terms I'd make up my own mind."
One night, Conley says, he returned to the rectory around 8 to find the lights off and the teenage boy who worked as the phone receptionist gone. Puzzled, he turned on the hall light and peered into an adjacent room. There, in shadows, he saw the kid on his knees with his legs spread. He must be with his girlfriend, Conley thought.
Conley cleared his throat. "Hey, what are you doing?" he asked. The boy turned toward him, his face as red as a beet. "What were you doing?" Conley repeated. "Wrestling," said the youngster, returning to his post by the phone.
Conley peered into the room and saw a figure crawl out the back door. "Who was that in there with you?" Conley asked. "Father Aylward," the youth replied, flustered.
Conley was convinced the boy was too embarrassed to admit what had happened. He was also reluctant to confront Aylward; he wanted police to question the priest. So he made an appointment with the San Mateo district attorney. First, though, he went to consult with an auxiliary bishop, P.J. McGrath. Levada was in Rome at the time. McGrath was outraged—"Goddammit, John, these guys just can't keep it in their pants!" Conley recalls him saying. But when Conley told him he had called the DA, McGrath, he says, replied, "You know, John, we usually keep these things in-house." (McGrath, now bishop of San Jose, didn't return phone calls.)
But the die was cast. Detectives took Conley's statement and police questioned the boy, who stuck to the wrestling story. The police didn't charge Aylward. Conley, upset, told chancery officials he couldn't live with a pedophile—a volatile statement, since Aylward hadn't been charged with anything. A chancery priest told Conley that he was forbidden to use the word "pedophile" and not to mention the accusations to anyone.
Conley moved out of the rectory and took a room at a hotel. The boy quit his rectory job and Conley met with the family soon after. The mother wept, saying she just couldn't force her son to testify to the police about the priest's increasing physical contact. The boy had confessed to his parents about numerous episodes in which Aylward had touched him inappropriately; some involved coercive sessions in which Aylward would drag him into a room and pin him to the ground and straddle him. It had gone on three times a week for more than a year.
A month later Conley was summoned to a meeting with Archbishop Levada and Monsignor George Wester. By then Conley was convinced of two things: the boy had been Aylward's sexual target, and the archdiocese was closing the wagons around Aylward.
Conley says Levada used the word "calumny" in reference to Aylward's innocence. Noticing that Monsignor Wester was taking notes, Conley pulled out a tape recorder, fearing he was being set up as a scapegoat. Levada was surprised, asking, "You don't trust me?" Conley said he just wanted an accurate record of the conversation. But Levada ordered Conley to turn off the tape recorder or court suspension from the priesthood.
"This meeting is over," said Levada. "I'm placing you on administrative leave." At the door, Levada told him, "Think about obedience."
Conley met again with Levada, just the two of them, and no tape recorder. Levada was pensive, Conley says, fingertips touching, as he told the priest he needed counseling. Conley suggested moving to the Seattle archdiocese. Levada was receptive, he says, but only if he would agree to a psychological evaluation. Conley, who had already sought therapy because of the events, refused.
Meanwhile, the boy's family was preparing to take legal action against Aylward and the archdiocese. When a story on Conley's forced leave broke in the Examiner, archdiocesan spokesman Healy issued a statement. The police had found "no sexual misconduct or anything illegal. The Archdiocese investigation determined that the wrestling incident was inappropriate and of poor judgment, but nothing sexual in nature...The Archdiocese instructed [Conley] to report the incident to civil authorities, and strongly supports the reporting of all incidents of suspected child abuse or neglect. It was the priest's behavior subsequent to the reporting which was unacceptable."
Conley was stung on reading that the archdiocese had instructed him to report his concerns; he had acted entirely on his own, without help from church leaders. "Why was the pastor 'wrestling' in the dark with an underage youth?" wrote Conley in a letter to the Examiner. "Why does the Archdiocese of San Francisco not have written policies and procedures in place for priests to deal with situations of abuse?"
Like Doyle in 1986, Conley had hit a brick wall in the ecclesiastical culture. He sued Levada and the archdiocese for defamation and infliction of emotional distress. Conley wanted a public apology and a set of procedures for handling abuse allegations that would protect priests like himself. What he got was a letter from Levada, insisting that if he did not withdraw the suit and "commence at once a program of remedial assistance...I will have no alternative but to impose on you the censure of suspension forbidding your exercise of all rights, privileges and faculties associated with the priestly ministry."
The court dismissed Conley's suit, accepting the church's argument that Levada was protected by the wall of separation between church and state. But Conley's instincts were borne out when Aylward, who had resigned from the parish, admitted in a deposition that he had gotten sexual gratification from wrestling with minors for years. The archdiocese negotiated a $750,000 settlement with the boy's family and removed Aylward from the ministry.
Conley's attorney filed an appeal. In late 2002, a California appellate court ruled in his favor, saying that the law mandating that clergy report suspected abuse superseded the church's privilege under the church-state divide. Conley, the whistle-blower, had a legitimate grievance to sue Levada for defaming him. The last thing Levada wanted was to testify against a priest on the witness stand. So the archdiocese negotiated an amazing settlement. The details remain secret, but the church's public statement says that the archdiocese "agrees that Father Conley was right in what he did in reporting the incident to the police...and that there is no retaliation against priests for reporting." It also says that the archdiocese has "prefunded" Conley's retirement. Given the lovely two-bedroom apartment in Noe Valley Conley now lives in, it is widely assumed that the settlement was generous.
As Conley's conflict with the church was winding down, the Vatican was finally receiving information from bishops about abuse cases in many countries. The scandal escalated in January 2002, when the Boston Globe began a stunning series on pedophiles reassigned under Cardinal Law. As media coverage exposed bishops elsewhere for acting like Law, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops commissioned a study, which found that 4,392 priests, or about 4 percent of Catholic clerics in America, had abused more than 10,000 children over the last 52 years. Many consider that a low figure, however, because the consultants who did the study were denied access to church files. Data came from bishops' responses to surveys.
That summer the bishops met in Dallas and came up with the so-called zero-tolerance policy, according to which any priest with even one credible accusation of abuse against him, however long ago the events occurred, was supposed to be removed from ministry. In response to these proceedings, Levada placed several influential priests on administrative leave, including Monsignor Pete Armstrong, a retired pastor in Redwood City who was chaplain for the 49ers football team, Monsignor John O'Connor, who oversaw St. Mary's Cathedral, on Cathedral Hill at Gough Street, and Monsignor John Heaney, who was the San Francisco Police Department chaplain. (All three men maintained their innocence.)
A few months earlier, Levada had also appointed a fact-finding committee of primarily laypeople from the community, called the Independent Review Board (IRB), to examine personnel files on questionable priests and interview key witnesses. He had sensed the local scandal was coming out of the shadows and wanted to avert potentially explosive problems. Psychologist James Jenkins, a former Holy Cross brother, would chair the committee; Father Greg Ingels, the canon lawyer, helped set it up. A detective was hired to strengthen their investigative work. "Levada knew he needed help," says Jenkins.
But Jenkins soon came to doubt whether Levada would deal honestly with the board. "The church wouldn't publish the names of priests we recommended removing," he says. "Disclosure encourages victims to come forward, which is what the church should be doing. Where was the bishops' moral outrage over the incidents we were uncovering? They seemed to be running around, covering up. Why wasn't their reaction like Conley's, to contact the police?"
In May of 2003, a bomb dropped on the board. Members read in the newspaper that Father Ingels had just been indicted for allegedly having oral sex with a 15-year-old boy at Marin Catholic High in the 1970s. Jenkins was furious. The very man who helped organize the abuse-oversight board might himself be an abuser?
And that wasn't the only numbing revelation. Levada, the board learned, had known about accusations against Ingels since 1996. Not only had he allowed him to remain in the ministry, he turned to him as a canonical law expert on the abuse crisis. In the mid-nineties, Ingels assisted in the process of defrocking the priest who'd abused up to 25 children in the Stockton diocese. In 2002 he helped fashion the church's zero-tolerance policy and wrote a guidebook for U.S. bishops on how to handle abuse cases.
Ingels's indictment forced the hypocrisy into the open, but only so far. Levada removed Ingels from the job but allowed him to live in a house at the seminary with former Archbishop Quinn. When Jenkins learned that, he went ballistic. "How can a former archbishop be sharing a house with a man who admitted that he sexually assaulted a kid?" exclaims Jenkins. "It's beyond the pale. If I were Levada I'd be beside myself over that. We recommended that Ingels move out." Levada told the board that he and Quinn discussed it and decided to let Ingels stay. Ingels would also continue serving on a tribunal that rules on marital annulments.
Jenkins eventually resigned from the review board in November 2004, accusing Levada of blocking the release of their findings, which had involved 40 priests accused of child molestation. Jenkins says that their names were never made public. In a letter to Levada, he called the review board "an elaborate public relations scheme."
Ingels was lucky: his indictment was dismissed after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturned a California law expanding the criminal statute of limitations for sex offenders. He was removed from public ministry but still lives at the seminary in Menlo Park.
Ingels wasn't the only accused abuser Levada had long tolerated. In 1984, Monsignor Milton Walsh, a pastor at St. Mary's Cathedral, had been reported to Archbishop Quinn for making sexual advances on a 14-year-old boy. Quinn defused the situation by assuring the family the priest would get help.
Levada has admitted in a civil deposition that he learned about Walsh when he first got to San Francisco, yet took no action to remove him as a priest. Walsh was allowed to live and teach at the seminary in Menlo Park—until summer 2002, when the Marin County district attorney's office charged him with two counts of lewd acts with a minor. The victim, by then an adult, tape-recorded a phone call in which the priest incriminated himself.
Only then did Levada yank him from his teaching post, but he remained at the seminary.
In 2003, three plaintiff attorneys—Jeff Anderson, Larry Drivon, and Ray Bouchet—engineered a bill for which abuse survivors gave jolting testimony in Sacramento; it sailed through the Legislature, opening a one-year window for victims to file suit in civil court, regardless of how long ago they had been abused. By 2004, California dioceses faced more than 700 cases, about 60 of them in San Francisco.
In responding to this new flood of suits, Levada again distinguished himself. "The archdiocese under Levada has used some of the most aggressive and offensive tactics ever to beat up on victims," says Anderson, who pioneered clergy malpractice litigation and is working on many cases in California. Drivon elaborates: "They take very intrusive depositions of many people who are at best tangential to the case. And they do everything they can to strong-arm plaintiffs into resolving these cases at the absolute bottom dollar. It is a scorched-earth tactic."
One of the priests being defended under Levada's policies is Father Whelan, whom McNevin and SNAP activists were protesting against last April. The trial is set for November.
The man who brought the case, Joe Piscitelli, 50, a contractor from Martinez, has been married 25 years and has two grown children. He sued not only Whelan, for allegedly abusing him as a teenager, but two other clerics who worked at Salesian High, saying they knew about the abuse but failed to halt it. The men—Father Bernard Dabbene, who was the school principal at the time, and Brother Sal Billante, then director of the Boys Club—have since become convicted sex offenders. Dabbene still lives at the Salesian provincial headquarters.
"I was 14 when Whelan started molesting me," says Piscitelli, a man who sits edgily, like a coiled spring. "I was the smallest kid in the class—I looked like I was ten. Brother Sal Billante watched what Whelan did to me—this is as clear to me as if it were yesterday. Billante was enjoying it."
In Whelan's case, the church is fighting tooth and nail to protect him. The Independent Review Board (minus Jenkins) and the Salesian Order have cleared him; he is still saying Mass and living at the Salesian headquarters. There are no restrictions on his contact with children.
"With all respect to the people who are damaged in this, not all the allegations are credible and true," says church spokesman Healy. "The priest has a right to have his name cleared." Still, leaving Whelan in the ministry folds into the church's legal defense, signaling to the jury that it believes the priest is a wronged man. The tactic has been used in other cases; most have found in favor of the victims.
By late summer, jury trials had resulted in verdicts in favor of four more accusers of the priest who abused Dennis Kavanaugh, with judgments totaling $5.8 million. Meanwhile, in the largest settlement in Northern California and the second largest in the state, the archdiocese agreed to pay $21.2 million to people who were molested by five clergymen. (As reported by SF Weekly's Ron Russell, one case involves a second complaint against Ingels, by a woman who said he abused her for four years in high school.) Since then, there's been another settlement against the church in the case of one priest for $16 million, involving 12 victims. That leaves about 30 cases still pending against the San Francisco archdiocese.
After such settlements, the archdiocese still supports many of these priests, though the church refuses to give details. They're pulled from the ministry but reside in a strange ecclesiastical limbo—disgraced before society, yet still part of the club, living in church housing, with indirect support from rank-and-file Sunday Catholics.
Over time, we'll hear less and less about priests with checkered pasts. In 2002, San Francisco's then-district attorney, Terence Hallinan, forced Levada to turn over 75 years' worth of church records pertaining to the abuse scandal. But church attorneys were able to negotiate an uncommon protocol with San Francisco, Marin, and San Mateo DAs not to release personnel files for civil cases. So once the Supreme Court ruling struck down the ability to file criminal charges on long-ago cases, the documents were effectively sealed.
Details of the church's financial losses also remain hidden. Two years ago, several members of the reform group Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) met with Levada. They wanted to know about money. "We had no idea of legal costs or money that went to support suspended priests," says Ed Gleason, a retired archdiocesan employee and VOTF leader, who was present. "We wanted accountability. The meeting lasted an hour. Levada sat stone-faced. He listened and gave up nothing." The church has since agreed to show VOTF its books but has yet to deliver.
After the most recent settlement was announced, Levada said, in a prepared statement, "It is our hope that the settlement of these cases will facilitate the process of healing for these victims and also set the stage for a global settlement of the remaining cases." He also expressed his "sincere apology for the pain [the victims] have endured."
There is no reason to doubt Levada's sorrow or pastoral desire for healing. Imagine, too, his own feeling of betrayal over the depraved priests who stained his reputation and that of countless bishops. But the mystery remains: why have bishops been so detached from the psychic damage done to clergy sex abuse survivors, who carry the trauma like a cross upon the soul? SNAP has accused Levada of being "slow to act, harsh to victims and committed to secrecy." Nothing in the public record suggests those words are an overstatement.
Levada told the Associated Press that SNAP's comments were "consistent with their policy of trying to accuse the bishops and me of malfeasance. It's simply incorrect and false." In fact, the epic scandal is exactly the result of malfeasance by the hierarchy, including Levada. The scandal backed him into a corner: he could admit institutional guilt and try to heal the wounds with honest dialogue, or he could use lawyers as an army against victims and defend the club with tactics of secrecy.
The unwritten ecclesiastical law is that no one criticizes the system. That is where Levada's failure intersects with the passive denial of countless bishops. They all made periodic apologies for the scandal but shrank from a fearless introspection of the culture. The deep flaw of that culture is its failure to confront the patterns of sexual behavior that throb within the priesthood.
Celibacy does not cause men to molest children any more than marriage can be blamed for incest. But a system of clerical governance based on celibacy is something else. The church rewards unmarried men who curry favor with older men in order to advance. Celibacy carried a certain godlike mystique for the Irish, Latino, and Italian immigrants who filled parishes before television and the sexual revolution. But the mystique of sexual sacrifice has eroded; many would-be priests never enter seminary because they view the celibacy law as oppressive and archaic. Celibacy could be made optional with the stroke of a papal pen, but to speak candidly about it is something every bishop knows he cannot do, lest he incur the wrath of the Vatican.
In Rome, Ratzinger and the other cardinals blamed the U.S. media and lawyers for the crisis. They needed targets to deflect blame from the systemic decay. The papal seat is filled with bureaucrats who fawn over cardinals and bishops with ornamental courtesies. The milieu resembles a king's college, rarefied with gorgeous artworks, surrounded by beautiful churches. The sense of serenity and comfort there is palpable—and amazingly surreal.
This is the environment in which Levada found his early career break, working for Cardinal Ratzinger. Back home, as a bishop, he climbed the ecclesiastical ladder, toting assumptions of the past: scandals might tarnish the church, but this, too, will pass. The sex abuse crisis has done incalculable damage—in ways that continue to jolt the hierarchy. But Levada, in a very tangible sense, is returning to his real home. Life there should be less stressful for him. Soon after he arrived at St. Mary's Cathedral, on August 7, to say his farewell Mass, Levada was served with a subpoena to testify about his handling of clergy sexual abuse in the now-bankrupted archdiocese of Portland.
Jason Berry is the author of Lead Us Not Into Temptation and coauthor of Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II.
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.
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