Vatican's Top American Has Mixed Record on Abuse

By Gillian Flaccus and Brooke Donald
The Associated Press
May 14, 2010

SAN FRANCISCO In 1997, the Rev. John Conley walked into a dimly lit church rectory to find a disheveled boy standing there and someone else crawling out a back door. The boy told him he had been wrestling with the parish's head priest.

Conley told church leaders and police. After complaining loudly when the archdiocese decided not to remove the Rev. James Aylward, Conley ended up being disciplined himself.

Conley said the San Francisco archbishop wanted to send him to a hospital "where they send priests who are disturbed."

"He said, 'Father Conley, you do know what wrestling is, don't you?'" Conley recalled. "And I said, 'As a matter of fact, I do know what wrestling is. It's usually in a gymnasium with all the lights on. It is not a 60-year-old man and a 14-year-old boy in a hallway."

The archbishop is now Cardinal William Levada, the highest-ranking American at the Vatican and head of the office that defrocks pedophile priests.

While Levada, 73, has played a key role in several church sex-abuse reforms, in several cases as archbishop in California and Oregon he kept some accused molesters in the church and failed to share some allegations with police or parishioners.

According to interviews and hundreds of pages of personnel files, deposition transcripts and court records over a 20-year period reviewed by The Associated Press, Levada allowed molesters to remain in the priesthood, didn't respond to pleas to notify parishioners of an abusive priest and worked with an alleged abuser to establish a lay review board.

Aylward later admitted to a history of inappropriate conduct with boys and was removed from the ministry. The archdiocese maintains Conley, who was a federal prosecutor before becoming a priest, was disciplined because of anger management problems, not because he reported suspected abuse.

Levada's supporters say it's unfair to judge him outside the context of the era, when not only the church but the justice system was more lenient toward abusers and more likely to believe that they could be rehabilitated.

Pope Benedict XVI has recently vowed to take action on the issue, after a round of scandals worldwide left the Vatican initially blaming the media and abortion rights and pro-gay marriage groups. Critics of Levada say his past could imperil reform as the Vatican navigates what could be a transformative moment in its history.

"You don't rise to that level by upsetting the apple cart," said James Jenkins, who resigned as chairman of the San Francisco lay review board after becoming disillusioned with Levada's handling of several abuse cases. "To think that he is going to turn his back on the very conservatives that supported him to get to that position is laughable."

Bishop John Wester, former vicar for clergy in San Francisco, counters that Levada is a strong reformer.

Levada was appointed to lead the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith by Benedict, who as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger held the post until becoming pope in 2005. Many of the scandals date to the tenure of Benedict's more popular predecessor, John Paul II, who is now widely seen as having dragged his feet on eliminating sex abuse from the church.

As an archbishop, Levada established one of the first boards in the nation where congregation members reviewed clergy abuse claims and helped develop the church's "zero tolerance" policy in the U.S. In his current role, he has suggested that bishops worldwide adopt the U.S. standards and report abuse to police when required by civil law. He also played an important role in the Vatican's decision earlier this month to take over the scandal-plagued Legionaries of Christ, whose founder sexually abused seminarians and fathered at least one child.

"He knows on the ground what that experience is," Wester said. "It's very complicated, because you're dealing with the victims and the perpetrators and as an administrator he had to respond to all of those people."

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Levada would have no comment when asked to respond to a set of questions about his actions in Portland and San Francisco.

Levada himself has acknowledged mistakes, without referring specifically to priest sex abuse or particular cases. In an interview with "PBS NewsHour" last month, he said he was "learning by doing" as a bishop and "I certainly could have done some things better than I did."


When he became archbishop in Portland in 1986, Levada inherited an explosive scandal.

The Rev. Thomas Laughlin had served six months in prison for sex crimes and parishioners were outraged that he was still a priest. Levada met with the families and wrote directly to Ratzinger, petitioning successfully for Laughlin's removal from the priesthood.

Levada told PBS it "was a very good learning experience for me. ... I was helped to take a closer look at every case that came before me."

Two years later, the archdiocese called police when it received a report that another priest had molested a 17-year-old boy. Levada sent the cleric to inpatient therapy, prepared a press release and dismissed him from ministry in 1990 after he admitted abusing others.

"I think he had a really good sense that the Laughlin scandal had been handled really, really badly,'" said Kelly Clark, a Portland attorney who deposed Levada. "I think he decided he was going to try to keep his shirt clean."

In a 2006 deposition, however, Levada said he received complaints about at least six other abusive priests but only reported one to police because the others were from the past. No announcements were made in parishes where molester priests had served.

"So many of these cases involved abuse that happened decades before," Levada said of making parish announcements. "It seems to me that what you're suggesting would affect a priest's ability to minister and affect his reputation among the people."

Levada also allowed at least two priests accused of abuse to return to ministry in the 1990s after therapy and allowed a Jesuit priest with a history of "sexual problems" into the Portland archdiocese.

A man who says he was victimized by the Rev. Rocco Perone as a boy in the 1950s said that in 1989 he asked the archdiocese to make an announcement about Perone so other victims could come forward. Levada spoke with the head of the priest's order, but no announcement was made.

The man, who is now 67 and said he requested anonymity for his family's sake, said that when the church refused to make a parish announcement, he began to call his old Catholic school classmates and found that some of them had been abused as well.

"It was quite an emotional reunion" during litigation, the man said, "because we'd all been victimized and I think at the time each of us thought that we were the only ones."

The archdiocese settled with Perone's victims in 2003. Perone died in 1992.

Vatican attorney Jeffrey Lena said the archdiocese received a clear indication from authorities that historical cases didn't need to be reported because they fell outside the statute of limitations. He defended Levada's reliance on therapy as part of the accepted practice at the time, in both secular and religious circles.

Church files contain a 1983 memo from the sheriff's department in Multnomah County, which includes Portland, Ore. It details reporting requirements and mentions not only that children need to be protected from abuse, but that the abusers themselves also need "our help and support."

"The mentality has completely changed now, and that's the point," Lena said. "When you judge a person, you have to judge them in the context of the times."


After being promoted to archbishop of San Francisco in 1995, Levada developed a reputation as a reformer on sex abuse.

Aside from establishing a review board, Levada was one of four U.S. bishops who worked with the Vatican in 2002 to implement the "zero tolerance" policy in the American church. In 2003, he issued a 10-page public apology to victims and their families.

"He was ahead of the curve. But as he says, it was a learning process all the way along the line," said Maurice Healy, spokesman for the archdiocese. "I think one of the reasons he was named to the current post is because he was so immersed in understanding, in dealing with it."

At the same time, however, Levada allowed at least two previously accused molesters to remain in ministry until 2002, when the U.S. bishops passed their new standards.

One was the Rev. Gregory Ingels, a prominent canon lawyer who helped establish the review board and provided input on the 2002 charter.

Levada knew in 1996 that Ingels had been accused of abuse, but the archbishop said in a 2005 deposition that Ingels did not have contact with children. He also said he was sure Ingels would not reoffend.

Ingels was not criminally charged with abuse until 2003, after he was removed from the diocese. The charges were dismissed after California's extended statute of limitations was ruled unconstitutional, but Ingels apologized in a taped phone call with the victim. The archdiocese settled a lawsuit filed by another Ingels accuser for nearly $3 million.

A message left at a listing for Ingels in Minnesota was not returned.

Ingels was in a desk job throughout Levada's tenure, Lena said.

"Is the guy an excellent canon lawyer? Did he do a good job? The answer to all those questions is yes," Lena said. "Those who seek blood would have the guy shipped to a desert island. Others think, a bit more charitably, that they might still have something to offer. This guy did."

One priest Levada did punish was Conley, who called police when he suspected Aylward had sexually abused the teen in the church rectory. The archdiocese concluded that Aylward's behavior was inappropriate but not sexual; authorities investigated but did not file charges.

Aylward publicly apologized, but Conley told church leaders he was disgusted that Aylward was not removed. He publicly called Aylward a pedophile and accused the archdiocese of a cover-up.

Conley was removed from the parish and transferred to a retreat center for what the archdiocese said were behavioral problems, angry outbursts occasionally directed at parishioners and disparaging remarks about the archbishop.

The archdiocese also said calling Aylward a pedophile even after he was cleared in investigations had jeopardized the priest's reputation.

Healy, the archdiocese spokesman, said the church was trying to find the truth and do what was best for the parish and that Conley's disruptive behavior had to be handled.

"Hindsight is 20-20," Healy said. "If we knew what Aylward had done, we would've removed him immediately."

Conley sued for defamation, claiming he was disciplined and penalized for reporting the abuse. The archdiocese settled in 2002 for an undisclosed sum that included his retirement benefits.

Attempts to reach Aylward were unsuccessful. The boy also sued the archdiocese, which settled the case for $750,000.

Flaccus reported from Los Angeles. Donald reported from San Francisco and Berkeley. AP Writers Terry Chea in San Francisco and William McCall in Portland, Ore. also contributed to this report.


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