Complicated and flawed, Levada was a churchman to the core


September 30, 2019

John L. Allen Jr.

If there’s one thing 20-plus years of covering the Catholic Church has taught, it’s that people and situations are rarely as simple as they seem. Few churchmen in my experience brought that point home quite as much as Cardinal William J. Levada, who died in Rome Sept. 26 at the age of 83.

Born in Long Beach, Levada was one of three alumni of St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo who would go on to become cardinals of the Catholic Church (the other two are Cardinal Roger Mahony, retired archbishop of Los Angeles and Cardinal Justin Rigali, retired archbishop of Philadelphia).

During his life, some saw Levada as a stereotypical conservative, a sort of culture warrior in sync with the ethos of the John Paul II and Benedict XVI years.

For many, that reputation was set in cement when Levada was the prime mover behind the decision to launch a Vatican doctrinal investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the main umbrella group for the leadership of American nuns, in 2009.


To take a different example, critics have faulted Levada’s record on the clerical sexual abuse scandals.

When Levada was the archbishop of Portland in 1992, for example, he removed an accused priest from ministry but then allowed him to return after counseling and under supervision two years later, defending it at the time as proof that rehabilitation is possible.

Levada moved to San Francisco in 1995, and a decade later the Archdiocese of Portland would become the first U.S. diocese to declare bankruptcy due to abuse claims.

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