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?

Although he was an associate priest answerable to Father Aylward as his pastor, Conley was no shrinking violet. A former federal prosecutor, the Detroit native had come to the priesthood after a stint as chief of the criminal division for the eastern district of Michigan. He had also served as a top legal adviser for the Michigan Racing Commission, which regulates thoroughbred racing.

After moving to the Bay Area in the early 1980s, he worked in federal bankruptcy courts for several years before realizing his lifelong dream of entering the priesthood. Conley graduated from St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park in 1993 and began the first of a string of parish assignments that resulted in his ultimately landing at St. Catherine in the summer of 1997.

His life -- as well as Aylward's -- changed dramatically as a result of the encounter in the church on the evening of Nov. 6, 1997. Neither Conley nor anyone else associated with the case would discuss it, citing confidentiality constraints. But Conley's detailed recollection of the incident and its aftermath, contained in court documents, provides a glimpse of the inner workings of the San Francisco Archdiocese that is less than flattering to Levada and some of his subordinates, including one -- Patrick J. McGrath -- who has since gone on to be San Jose's bishop.

San Francisco Archbishop William J. Levada, then 
(above) and now (top): His handling of abuse cases 
has drawn the ire of victim advocates.
San Francisco Archbishop William J. Levada, then (above) and now (top): His handling of abuse cases has drawn the ire of victim advocates.
As auxiliary bishop of San Francisco in 1997, current 
San Jose Bishop Patrick J. McGrath figures 
prominently in the saga of whistle-blower Father John 
Conley.
As auxiliary bishop of San Francisco in 1997, current San Jose Bishop Patrick J. McGrath figures prominently in the saga of whistle-blower Father John Conley.

According to his sworn testimony in a deposition, Conley arrived back at the church at about 8 p.m. He unlocked the door and went inside, hearing a noise in a nearby hallway. He pushed open a door and, he says, spotted a 15-year-old boy, one of several youths Aylward had recruited as volunteers to answer phones and greet people entering the church. In his deposition, Conley says the boy, kneeling in the dark and facing away from him, was "panting" and out of breath.

"I said, 'Hey, what's going on? What's happening? Are you wrestling?'" Conley testified.

"Yeah, yeah, wrestling," the boy replied, according to Conley.

"I said, 'Who is that in there with you?'"

The boy said nothing. Conley says he repeated the question and the boy responded, "Father Aylward."

Even before hearing the answer, Conley says he saw a hand reach up from the floor and turn a doorknob on the other side of the hall. Aylward, he says, crawled away.

Conley later placed two significant phone calls: one to the San Francisco chancery office to request a meeting with Levada (Conley didn't state his purpose) and the other to the San Mateo County District Attorney's Office. Levada was out of town the day of the appointment, and Conley was directed to McGrath, then an auxiliary bishop to Levada.

Conley says the first words McGrath uttered after inviting him into his office were, "John, these goddamn guys can't keep it in their pants." Conley says the bishop handed him a copy of a state law requiring priests and other religious workers to report suspected child abuse to law enforcement authorities. (The measure, which took effect on Jan. 1, 1997, had been strongly opposed by the state's Roman Catholic bishops.) After reading it, Conley says he replied: "My God. This law went into effect 11 months ago. How come we haven't heard about this? Why haven't the parishes been briefed?"

McGrath, he says, responded: "We are still studying it."

McGrath then said, "We better get the lawyers up here," according to Conley. The priest says McGrath expressed reservations about getting involved in the Aylward matter, suggesting that John Wester, then the archdiocese's vicar for clergy, handle it. (Wester was elevated to the additional role of auxiliary bishop in 1998.) Conley says McGrath also wanted to call Aylward to inform him that he was being discussed. Conley says he told McGrath, "Bishop, I had a background as a prosecutor. I can't give you advice, but ... I would strongly recommend against that."

As they waited for an archdiocesan lawyer to arrive, Conley says McGrath turned to him and said, "Now, are you sure you want to do this?"

"I said, 'Do what?'"

"He said, 'Report this.'"

"And I said, 'Well, I already have an appointment with the district attorney.' And I said, "From what you just read to me, it's a requirement of law.'" Conley says McGrath responded, "Well, I suppose so but you know, prior to this we've always handled these things in-house."

Conley says he then stepped across the hall to call the assistant district attorney with whom he had arranged to meet the next day for the purpose of asking how he should proceed. He says the prosecutor told him to go back to McGrath and "tell the bishop that if he does contact Father Aylward that could be interpreted as an obstruction of justice." Conley says he conveyed the message to McGrath, who agreed not to notify Aylward. (Through a spokeswoman, McGrath declined to be interviewed for this article. "He doesn't want to discuss Father Conley," said Roberta Ward. "He's here [in San Jose] now. That was another time. He just doesn't want to go there.")

Not long after Conley's Nov. 17, 1997, meeting with McGrath, he says, he received a call from Wester, the vicar for clergy, advising him to "keep quiet" about Aylward and not damage the priest's "good name and reputation." Conley says Wester said he had spoken with Levada and that "the archbishop forbids you to use the word pedophile" in relation to Aylward.

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