See No Evil

S.F. Archbishop William Levada styles himself as a leading advocate for openness among Catholic leaders on the clergy sex-abuse issue. So why doesn't he practice what he preaches?

Local church officials heralded the Archdiocesan Independent Review Board as evidence of Levada's determination to get to the bottom of the clerical abuse problem. Critics, however, say the archbishop's handling of the Carter case was deceptive at best. Although the review panel found the allegations by San Francisco social worker Danielle Lacampagne to be "inconclusive," that is not what the archbishop told his priest. In a March letter to Carter announcing the decision to reinstate him, a copy of which was obtained by SF Weekly, Levada asserts instead that the review panel declared the charges "unfounded." Besides prompting criticism that the archbishop is trying to have it both ways in dealing with Carter, the case raises questions about the role of the review panel, whose members operate in anonymity and about which the archdiocese has chosen to reveal practically nothing.

"The whole idea of a review panel should be to instill credibility that you're actually doing something," says victim advocate Paul Hessinger, who is among those who've pressed the archdiocese for information to no avail. "The secrecy around the review board just reinforces the perception that it's a rubber stamp for the archbishop."

As SF Weeklyreported in March ("Bishop Bad Boy," March 19), a similar pattern of secrecy marks Levada's overseeing the cleanup of twin sex and financial scandals he inherited in the Santa Rosa Diocese in 1999. The archbishop's longtime friend, Bishop G. Patrick Ziemann, had been forced to surrender his post after being caught shaking down a subordinate priest for sex. Following Ziemann's departure -- he now lives in church exile at an Arizona monastery -- it was revealed that the diocese was more than $16 million in debt. Levada authorized a secret $532,000 settlement to Ziemann's accuser, Father Jorge Hume Salas.

Whistle-blowing Father John Conley, 58: "Any person 
with a moral conscience would have done the same 
Anthony Pidgeon
Whistle-blowing Father John Conley, 58: "Any person with a moral conscience would have done the same thing."
Danielle Lacampagne, 34, has accused Father Daniel 
Carter of sexually fondling her as a child, something 
he denies.
Anthony Pidgeon
Danielle Lacampagne, 34, has accused Father Daniel Carter of sexually fondling her as a child, something he denies.

Church officials sought to vilify Hume, who nonetheless managed to retain his priestly faculties as part of the settlement. After Levada stepped in to govern the diocese, a criminal investigation into alleged financial irregularities hit a roadblock when diocesan officials refused to fully cooperate. Yet through it all, including his most recent actions related to the Carter matter, Levada has managed to avoid the kind of media scrutiny that has dogged other Catholic hierarchs, including his close friend, Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony.

Besides Carter, Levada has taken action against at least six other priests, including some prominent ones, since the clergy abuse mess erupted on a national scale. They include Monsignor John O'Connor, who oversaw the landmark St. Mary's Cathedral on the edge of Chinatown, and who took a leave of absence in August after being accused of having improperly touched a boy more than 30 years ago. Monsignor John Heaney, the longtime former chaplain of the San Francisco Police Department, has been accused by two brothers of molesting them more than 40 years ago. Father Miles O'Brien Riley, an author, actor, and former spokesman for the church who was well-known for his radio ministry and as a fixture on the old God Squad TV show, was the target of a complaint by a female parishioner who accused him of having consensual contact short of intercourse with her in the early 1970s. And a teenage Marin County boy accused Monsignor Peter Armstrong, former chaplain of the San Francisco 49ers, of having improper contact with him.

Each of the clerics has proclaimed his innocence. Except for Armstrong, who had already retired, each was allowed to go quietly, with Levada either suspending them with pay, placing them on personal leave, or allowing them to retire.

Citing Levada's vigilance, church officials have declared the archdiocese free of child-molesting clerics. But Levada's purges may have been triggered in part by a demand by San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan. In April 2002, Hallinan ordered the archdiocese to surrender records pertaining to potential cases of priestly child abuse that occurred as long as 75 years ago. The unprecedented -- some called it nutty -- request elicited grumbles from various quarters, including the Chronicle, which took Hallinan to task in an editorial for engaging in a fishing expedition. The archdiocese since has turned over many, although not all, of the records the DA wants, says Elliot Beckelman, the assistant district attorney charged with investigating clerical crimes.

Levada jettisoned a few of his problem priests within a couple of months of the DA's edict. To victim advocate Hessinger, who has agitated for more openness from the archdiocese for years, the timing of the exodus was revealing.

"Despite all the talk about how concerned [Levada] is that everyone is above reproach," Hessinger says, "it just told me that he doesn't do anything until he has to."

In settling the Conley case out of court, Levada managed to avoid a public airing of an episode that could have been deeply embarrassing to the archbishop and some of his top lieutenants. A jury was set to hear the priest's suit at an especially delicate time, just as Levada and the other papal appointees had finished work on the blueprint for the American church's new Vatican-approved sexual-abuse policy.

Conley had sued after informing Levada and top archdiocese officials about something he had seen inside St. Catherine Church in Burlingame on a night when he had returned earlier than expected after teaching a class.

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