Church Settles Suit by Whistle-Blower

By Bob Egelko
San Francisco Chronicle
November 27, 2002

San Francisco's Roman Catholic Archdiocese has settled a lawsuit by a church whistle-blower, admitting that the Rev. John Conley was right to go to the police with a report of suspected child abuse by a fellow priest.

The admission is an about-face for the archdiocese, which had placed Conley on leave after he reported the incident in 1997 and then told him he could return to the pulpit only if he underwent therapy and dropped his lawsuit.

Conley's lawyer said Tuesday the archdiocese may now say it wants its priests to follow Conley's example, but that's not the view Archbishop William Levada expressed in a sworn out-of-court deposition last month.

Attorney Michael Guta said Levada was asked if he would have reported the incident Conley saw -- a priest wrestling with an altar boy in a darkened rectory. "He stated . . . that he would not have reported it himself," Guta said. "I find that very troubling."

Archdiocese spokesman Maurice Healy responded that Levada's answer was taken out of context.

"It assumes that the archbishop had all of the facts at the time," Healy said. "The archbishop said he didn't know what he would do at that time" but would report the incident if he had known the facts that later became available.

The settlement was announced Monday as jury selection was to begin in San Francisco Superior Court.

The lawsuit arose after Conley told his superiors and police that he saw the Rev. James Aylward wrestling with the teenage altar boy at St. Catherine of Burlingame Church in Burlingame in November 1997. Conley did not allege that the contact was overtly sexual, but said it was suspicious enough to be reported under a state law requiring clergy to report suspected child abuse.

Aylward denied wrongdoing and was not prosecuted. But in a civil deposition in February 2000, he admitted touching boys for sexual pleasure during previous church jobs dating back about a dozen years. He was immediately relieved of his duties. The church settled the former altar boy's suit for $750,000.

In his lawsuit, Conley said the archdiocese tried to cover up the abuse by retaliating against him -- placing him on administrative leave, telling him he needed therapy and falsely telling other clergy that he had committed inappropriate conduct during church functions.

The archdiocese denied retaliating against Conley for reporting the incident and contended he was disciplined for unrelated behavioral problems.

Had the trial gone forward, Conley's accusations would have been aired to a jury even as the local archdiocese was trying to reassure parishioners of its vigilance in combatting abuse.

Conley, 58, a priest since 1993, will retire from the active ministry as a part of the settlement, but will not have to relinquish his status as a priest. The archdiocese will pay for his retirement, in an amount not disclosed. Other terms of the settlement were kept confidential.

A joint statement announcing the settlement said Conley was correct in stepping forward. "The archdiocese encourages its priests to follow the law and has policies in place that require priests to report acts of suspected child abuse," the statement continued. "The clergy of the archdiocese are and will be supported in this effort and there is no retaliation against priests for reporting."


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