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At a momentous gathering of U.S. Catholic bishops last June -- the first such conclave after the clergy sex-abuse scandal erupted in Boston and spread across the nation -- San Francisco Archbishop William J. Levada advanced an idea that set him apart from many of his cassocked brethren. Amid multiple proposals to crack down on pedophile priests, Levada challenged the bishops assembled in Dallas to examine their own conduct in handling sex-abuse cases involving the clergy.
He called on fellow hierarchs to do everything they could to root out offending priests and to vigorously monitor their own progress in order to restore the badly shaken confidence of rank-and-file Catholics. Levada had hit on the same theme earlier in San Francisco in unusually blunt remarks during a special Mass. "We are suffering for the mistakes of bishops and administrators who did not place the future protection of children above their desire to protect the reputation and service of priests who had proven themselves unfaithful to their duties," the archbishop told an audience of some 400 priests and 2,000 parishioners. His Dallas proposal -- offered at a time when media attention to clergy sex abuse was at its zenith -- helped catapult him to the front ranks of the American hierarchy on the issue. Pope John Paul II later chose Levada as one of four U.S. church leaders to work with the Vatican in crafting a compromise sex-abuse plan that His Holiness could accept. The pope signed off on the watered-down "zero tolerance" policy in December.
But if he has distinguished himself by demanding that church leaders be open in dealing with the worst crisis to afflict the church in more than a century, Levada has a record as leader of 425,000 Roman Catholics in San Francisco, San Mateo, and Marin counties that suggests he has not practiced what he preaches. Advocates for abuse victims express frustration that more than a year after the clergy sex-abuse scandal burst into the headlines, Levada's archdiocese has dragged its feet in response to victims' pleas for help. And while Levada has drawn praise for his accommodating public statements on the issue, critics say he and his top aides have worked to keep complaints about accused priestly abusers shrouded in secrecy. (Levada declined to be interviewed for this article.)
"[Levada's] method is to string you along in hopes that you will eventually tire out and go away," says Terrie Light, the Northern California coordinator for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, which has members nationwide.
In March, the frustrated Light called for abuse victims to boycott meetings with archdiocese officials that were instituted last May, saying the monthly gatherings were fruitless "and nothing more than an attempt by the archbishop to co-opt the survivor community for his own purposes." Only a few victims were attending the meetings, held in a third-floor conference room at archdiocese headquarters adorned by a bigger-than-life portrait of the archbishop. Levada rarely attended. Other than helping to plan a June 14 "ceremony of apology" for victims -- an event over which Levada is to preside -- participants in the talks have accomplished little, critics say.
"They're throwing us crumbs," says Patrick Wilkes, who belongs to a loose-knit group of abuse survivors known as No More Secrets, whose members have kept up the dialogue with local church officials. "The archdiocese is doing nothing of substance to respond to abuse victims."
Victim advocates say the lack of candor on the part of Levada and his subordinates has discouraged victims from coming forward. Take whistle-blower priest Father John Conley, for example. In 1997, Conley unexpectedly walked in on a fellow priest, Father James Aylward, engaging in what he suspected was inappropriate contact with an altar boy in a darkened Burlingame church. Conley subsequently reported what he had observed to his superiors, including Levada. But it was Conley who was soon forced out of active ministry -- for reasons archdiocese officials insist were unrelated to his whistle-blowing.
After Aylward later admitted touching boys for sexual gratification, the archdiocese shelled out $750,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by the altar boy's parents, while requiring that details of the settlement be kept secret. Conley then sued the archdiocese, contending that his priestly career had been unfairly cut short because of his whistle-blowing. In November, Levada authorized an extraordinary secret settlement with Conley just before the suit was to go to trial.
In another case, San Francisco preschool teacher Sylvia Chavez contends that local church officials stonewalled her after she sought their help in tracking down a priest in Mexico who she says molested her as a child while he served in the San Francisco parish where she grew up. Chavez spent much time last year communicating her concerns to Auxiliary Bishop John Wester, Levada's point man on sex-abuse issues. Wester insists he personally informed the accused priest's supervising archbishop in Mexico about her allegations in December. But the Mexican prelate says he was unaware of her charges until informed of them later by an attorney Chavez turned to for help.
Few cases have rankled Levada's critics more than that of Father Daniel Carter, whom Levada yanked as pastor of the Immaculate Heart of Mary parish in Belmont in August and recently reinstated despite a pending lawsuit by a woman who contends that Carter sexually fondled her as a child. Carter has loudly proclaimed his innocence. But his restoration to the pulpit upset victim advocates who question the thoroughness and objectivity of an investigation conducted by a secretive panel Levada created in 2001 to look into abuse complaints.