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?

A few minutes later, Conley says, Wester called back to say he had just spoken to the archbishop and that Levada had also instructed Conley "not to tell the sisters" about the incident, an apparent reference to nuns assigned to the parish. Chafing at the constraints, Conley told Wester that he did not "deal well with the F word -- forbid" and that as a grown man he knew "how to use vocabulary" in describing what he had seen.

Conley's recollections of the exchange with Wester came in answer to questions from Paul Gaspari, an archdiocesan attorney who deposed the priest last year. (Unlike some other documents, the Conley deposition was not included in a gag order a judge imposed, at the archdiocese's urging, on the parties to the settlement.) In response to Gaspari's questions, Conley recalls telling Wester, "You must be in contact with the archbishop. ... And he says, yes, he was. And I said, "Well, will you deliver a message for me?' And he said, well, he'd be happy to. And so I had him deliver a message."

Gaspari then asks, "And what was the message?"

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.

"The message was to tell the archbishop to grow some balls and start acting like a man."

Asked why he felt the need to express himself so angrily, Conley replies, "Because I felt this was a very serious matter involving child abuse and that they were hiding their heads in the sand, refusing to deal with it."


If Conley's bluntness fueled Levada's ire, what occurred at the archbishop's residence on Dec. 20, 1997, appears to have given Levada the ammunition he needed to torpedo his whistle-blower.

Summoned to an audience with the archbishop, Conley showed up with a tape recorder, which Levada immediately asked him to turn off. Conley, seeking to protect his interests, resisted. "Don't you trust me?" Levada asked, according to Conley. "This isn't a matter of trust, it's a matter of accuracy," the priest says he responded.

Levada then purportedly said that since Conley refused to turn the recorder off he had no choice but to place him on administrative leave. The archbishop, according to Conley's deposition, also referred to reports that Conley had exhibited bouts of ill temper, citing a woman's complaint about the manner in which Conley had served her Communion. Conley says he got out the tape recorder again, prompting Levada to threaten to end the meeting. The archbishop told Conley he was out at St. Catherine, but that since it was the holiday season, he could stay until the day after Christmas, Conley says. Levada made Conley's ouster official in a letter two days later.

Aylward, on the other hand, was permitted to continue as St. Catherine's pastor for several months before being transferred to a Marin County parish. Conley, his clerical career in tatters, was banished to a church retreat center in Menlo Park; he was later allowed to take up residence in a San Francisco rectory with minimal responsibilities. Branded a troublemaker, he was shunned by many fellow priests, he says.

Archdiocese officials publicly treated Aylward's alleged conduct with the boy as little more than a nickel foul.

"It's the kind of thing which certainly we're concerned about, but it is what it is. It's not more than what it is, and it's wrong to make more of it than it is," Maurice Healy, the archbishop's spokesman, told a radio interviewer. In a letter to the editor of the San Mateo County Times, Healy asserted that Conley's dismissal from St. Catherine "was totally unrelated to his reporting of possible child abuse." Noting that Burlingame police had cleared Aylward of criminal wrongdoing, he added, "While the archdiocese strongly disapproves of a priest wrestling with a youth, Aylward's lapse of judgment does not warrant a witch hunt against a man who has been a good priest for 34 years."

The boy's parents, however, weren't satisfied. They sued Aylward and the archdiocese, alleging that the priest sexually molested their son. And under questioning by an attorney for the parents in February 2000, the priest dropped a bombshell. Though he maintained his innocence on the night Conley walked in on him and the youth, he also made an astonishing admission with humiliating consequences for his defenders at the archdiocese. He described "wrestling" with several boys from various parishes he had served during trips to Half Moon Bay and elsewhere -- and the physical effect the grappling sessions had on him.

A lawyer for the boy's parents, Ronald Schwartz, then asked Aylward: "Did you ever get any kind of erection. ... Did you get stimulated at all?"

"Sometimes," Aylward said.

Schwartz: "Would you ever end up coming to a climax?"

Aylward: "That happened several times."

Schwartz: "Would that be with your clothing still on, or both ways?"

Aylward: "I never took my clothes off."

Later Aylward was asked if the roughhousing resulted "in sexual gratification or arousal for you?"

Aylward: "Sometimes it did. Sometimes it didn't."

Schwartz: "Was one of the reasons you were attracted to enter into this rough-housing or wrestling was [sic] the feeling of closeness or sexual gratification or the hope for it?"

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