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  Burlingame Priest Sues S.F. Diocese
Clergyman Punished after Reporting Abuse

By Elizabeth Fernandez
San Francisco Chronicle
November 24, 2000

In a case of sexual misconduct by a priest that stunned a Burlingame parish and embarrassed the local Catholic church, the Archdiocese of San Francisco has paid $750,000 in a confidential settlement to a former altar boy.

The youth, who worked in the rectory of St. Catherine of Siena Church, starting when he was 15, had sued the archdiocese for alleged physical and mental abuse that occurred for more than a year by then-pastor the Rev. James Aylward.

In an odd twist, a priest who discovered Aylward wrestling with the youth in a darkened rectory room in November 1997 and reported it to authorities was placed on administrative leave.

Later, the Rev. John Conley took the highly unusual step of suing his own church, charging that he was defamed and penalized for reporting suspected child abuse. The case was initially dismissed, but this week, Conley asked the state Court of Appeal to reinstate the case.

The archdiocese has called the suit "totally without merit."

Appearing Tuesday before a three-judge panel of the appeals court, Conley's attorney, Michael Guta of Oakland, said the archdiocese attempted to "neutralize Father Conley by discrediting him."

In court documents, Conley said the archdiocese "took numerous actions" to retaliate against him for "fulfilling his legal obligation to report an incident of suspected child abuse."

Among those actions, the archdiocese placed Conley on leave, alleged that he "was in need of psychological therapy," "falsely informed other clergy and members of the archdiocese that (Conley) had committed inappropriate conduct during church functions" and required him to "undergo an inpatient evaluation of his mental state at a qualified therapeutic institution as a condition for his return to pastoral duties."

In response archdiocese attorney Paul Gaspari told the court that Conley's case was legally baseless.

"At no time can a religious institution be hauled into civil court by a member of the clergy for a matter arising out of internal discipline," Gaspari said.

In an interview after the hearing, Gaspari said the U.S. Constitution ensures that religious institutions are free to discipline clergy as they see fit. Moreover, civil courts are prohibited from "entangling" themselves in the internal affairs of churches, he said.

"Federal jurisprudence says the courts are forbidden from such interference," he said. "A civil court cannot question the motives and reasons that a church uses to justify its employment decisions."

Such a blanket prohibition, Guta countered, would throttle clergy, in most instances, from legal redress.

"To say they have carte blanche immunity is a dangerous precedent," Guta said. "You can't tell me it is part of religious expression to smear your clergy members."

Last spring on the verge of trial, the archdiocese settled the lawsuit filed by the former rectory worker.

The archdiocese's director of communications, Maurice Healy, said the archdiocese's insurance carrier paid the settlement.

But last month, a legal supplement to the Los Angeles Daily Journal and San Francisco Daily Journal reported that the case was settled for $750,000. While the names of the parties in the case were omitted, key identifying details were included.

Aylward, ordained in 1964, had adamantly insisted that the nighttime wrestling encounter was a onetime incident of "horseplay and wrestling."

Police and the San Mateo County district attorney's office investigated the incident and concluded that there was insufficient evidence to file charges.

The archdiocese conducted its own internal review and decided that Aylward had shown a lapse in judgment. While condemning clergy wrestling with minors, the archdiocese termed Aylward's conduct inappropriate but not sexual.

Aylward was permitted to remain in his post as pastor for seven months until he resigned to serve as parochial vicar at a Mill Valley church.

The former rectory worker, identified in court papers as John Doe, filed suit in the spring of 1999, charging that the archdiocese had sanctioned the misconduct by failing to discipline Aylward or remove him from the parish.

"Aylward would force Doe to wrestle with him, forcing him to the ground and getting on top of him," the suit alleged. "Aylward would secure Doe in positions from which (he) could not escape and not release him until Doe would groan from pain. Aylward while engaged in these acts would grunt and groan and saliva would drip from his mouth."

In a deposition last February, the 61-year-old Aylward admitted to a history of inappropriate touching of minor boys for his own sexual pleasure. He confessed to multiple incidents of inappropriate physical contact with minors dating back approximately a dozen years while he was assigned to several parishes, including St. Emydius Church in San Francisco.

He was immediately relieved of his duties.

For his part, Conley remains on administrative leave, although he assists at St. Philip the Apostle Church in San Francisco and helps at various parishes and hospitals.

Conley himself is a lawyer and former federal prosecutor who worked as an assistant U.S. attorney from 1972 to 1978. In 1988, he enrolled in St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park and was ordained five years later.

"It seemed very familiar being in court," Conley said after the appeals court hearing. "I'm comfortable in courtrooms, so I felt at home. The judges asked very good questions. They seemed very aware of the facts and issues."

The appeals court is expected to rule on the case in coming weeks.

 
 

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