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After he was caught exploiting a subordinate priest for sex, G. Patrick Ziemann could have been consigned to a life of ignominy upon stepping down as the Roman Catholic bishop of Santa Rosa in 1999. And after he left the sprawling diocese that stretches from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Oregon border $16 million in debt following his seven years there, at least a few angry Catholics believe he walked away with far too little punishment. But life after the fall has turned out to be relatively sweet for the charismatic and once wildly popular religious leader known to many as Bishop Pat, despite his notoriety as one of the American church's highest-ranking bad boys.
Residing in comfortable, if not luxurious, exile at a monastery in the Arizona desert that doubles as a tourist destination, Ziemann, 61, is fit, tanned, and in good spirits. A fixture on the artsy party circuit in nearby Tucson, he's even spotted occasionally at a karaoke bar. Although his clerical privileges are restricted while he undergoes "spiritual rehabilitation," church officials haven't ruled out the possibility that the disgraced bishop may someday get a crack at heading another diocese.
And neither has he.
"It's whatever the Lord wills," he tells SF Weekly in the first newspaper interview he has granted in the nearly four years since being engulfed in scandal. "Whatever the Lord has in mind for me, I'm willing to accept."
That this fallen star among U.S. Catholic leaders -- even one who claims to pray four hours a day, as Ziemann does -- entertains the possibility of a career comeback is itself revealing. After all, it was only a few years ago that he forced a young priest to wear a beeper so that he could summon him for trysts in cars, hotel rooms, and even the Santa Rosa Diocese office. (Once, police reports reveal, Ziemann had the cleric orally copulate him on the eve of their joint celebration of a special Sunday Mass.) Then again, as his kid-glove treatment since being banished from Santa Rosa suggests, Ziemann may know too much to be jettisoned. Even now, more than a year after priestly sex abuse burst into the headlines -- first in Boston and then across the nation -- the former leader of 140,000 Northern California Catholics looms as a tantalizing figure in the unraveling scandal afflicting the church.
He has been protected by and remains intimately connected with three influential fellow hierarchs, including San Francisco Archbishop William J. Levada. It was Levada who presided over Ziemann's skipping away from Santa Rosa with criminal impunity after church officials refused to fully cooperate with authorities. Ziemann's mentor and chief patron is Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, whose problems with pedophile priests rival the scandal-plagued Boston archdiocese's. The other member of the troika is Manuel Moreno, who until his surprise resignation this month for health reasons, was bishop of Tucson, Ariz., and in whose diocese Ziemann was given refuge at the Holy Trinity Monastery near the legendary gunslinging town of Tombstone. Moreno has a long and tawdry record in covering up for pedophile priests.
Ziemann's ties to the trio, and their bonds to each other, go back four decades to St. John's Seminary College, on a secluded Southern California hilltop overlooking the Ventura County coastline. The men overlapped as students there in the late 1950s and early '60s. Ziemann arrived in 1963, the year after Mahony, the group's superstar, graduated. But his and Mahony's paths have intersected at St. John's social events and elsewhere since at least the mid-1960s. After Mahony became archbishop of Los Angeles in 1985 (Pope John Paul II elevated him to cardinal in 1991), Ziemann's stock soared.
After naming him to oversee a junior seminary for high school boys, Mahony appointed Ziemann auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles in 1987. Church sources say the cardinal was instrumental in securing the Vatican's 1992 appointment of Ziemann to head the Santa Rosa Diocese. The sources say Mahony also had a hand in Levada's coming from Portland, Ore., to become archbishop of San Francisco in 1995, following former Archbishop John Quinn's decision to step down for health reasons. Thus Levada (St. John's class of '58) became Ziemann's ostensible boss.
At a time when someone else might have tossed him to the wolves, Levada lauded Ziemann to the bitter end in Santa Rosa. The day Ziemann resigned, shortly after a lurid audiotape surfaced exposing the bishop's illicit relationship with the priest, Levada extolled his friend as someone who had done much to help the diocese. It didn't seem to matter that, right up until the revelation of the bishop's tape-recorded apology to Father Jorge Hume Salas for forcing him to engage in sex, Ziemann's personal attorney proclaimed him to be "a very holy man" and the bishop steadfastly denied any misconduct. "It was like a testimonial send-off for his bishop who had just finished disgracing himself in the worst way imaginable," recalls Don Hoard, a Petaluma advocate for sex-abuse victims, referring to Levada's verbal backslapping. "It was surreal."
As archbishop, Levada stepped in to run the Santa Rosa Diocese for nearly a year until a new bishop could be installed. During that time, Levada's underlings dragged their feet and discouraged police and prosecutors from pursuing possible criminal charges against Ziemann and his former top lieutenant, Monsignor Thomas J. Keys, in the wake of a colossal financial scandal, the full extent of which has yet to be disclosed. This, after diocesan lawyers worked vigorously to discredit Hume, whom Ziemann began shaking down for sex not long after ordaining him. It was on Levada's watch that the diocese paid Hume $535,000 to settle a civil lawsuit against Ziemann, while swearing him to secrecy. But the archbishop's involvement didn't end with Ziemann's departure.