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During the 2002 U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas -- at the height of public outrage over the clergy sex-abuse scandal -- San Francisco Archbishop William J. Levada projected himself as a reformer on the abuse issue, chastising some fellow bishops for not doing enough to remove miscreant priests from their domains.
In the end, the conference voted to remove from ministry any priest who had sexually abused a minor, even if the abuse occurred far in the past. Afterward, however, the late Pope John Paul II felt the bishops' reforms were too severe and appointed Levada to help reconcile them with Vatican policy. The archbishop, in turn, asked Father Gregory Ingels, a prominent canon lawyer and a longtime Levada favorite, to help write the guidelines for a "zero tolerance" sex-abuse policy that the pope could later sign off on.
In this ironic way, American bishops now follow a program for dealing with sex-abuse complaints that was significantly influenced by two men:
A Catholic priest and lawyer who has had two serious sexual-abuse cases filed against him -- one of which the church recently agreed to settle by paying an alleged victim $2.7 million.
And an archbishop who has helped shield the lawyer/priest for nine years -- and who has now been appointed to what many consider to be the Roman Catholic Church's second most powerful position.
From the day Pope Benedict XVI named him as the new head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Levada, now San Francisco's archbishop emeritus, has garnered the kind of wide attention one would expect of someone about to assume an office of global influence. His new post, which he will officially take in August, makes him the church's chief doctrinal watchdog. As such, he replaces the man who ascended to the papacy -- his longtime friend, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- as the pre-eminent protector of Catholic teaching, entrusted with issuing guidelines and commentaries on the most sensitive aspects of church life. With the new job comes the power to define the boundaries of religious dialogue as well as set the limits of dissent on a host of hot-button moral and social issues. Not least of all, it puts Levada at the helm of overseeing the church's handling of clergy sex-abuse cases worldwide.
The pope's choice of Levada for this role seems highly unusual and, in light of months of investigation by SF Weekly, perhaps inappropriate.
The investigation shows that during more than nine years in San Francisco, Levada and his top aides have worked to keep complaints about priestly sex abusers shrouded in secrecy, particularly two complaints against Father Gregory Ingels, a widely known church legal scholar. After learning in 1996 that Ingels had been accused of sodomizing a 15-year-old boy, Levada allowed Ingels not just to remain in public ministry, but to flourish for years as a force in church legal matters. And Levada continued to support Ingels as a church official -- even after learning of a second serious allegation of sexual abuse by the priest.
With Levada's blessing, Ingels served as an adjunct professor at St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park and performed parish duties at St. Bartholomew Church in San Mateo without parishioners ever being told that their priest was an accused molester.
Levada appointed Ingels chancellor of the San Francisco Archdiocese, a position reserved for a trusted lieutenant, whose duties typically include overseeing archival records and helping instruct other priests on liturgical matters.
Levada put Ingels in charge of the Permanent Diaconate, entrusting him with the job of supervising church deacons.
After prosecutors learned of sex complaints against Ingels, Levada finally removed him from public ministry -- but allowed the canon lawyer to keep his place on a tribunal that decides the outcome of marital annulment cases.
Indeed, during the years after Levada learned of Ingels' alleged misconduct, Ingels solidified a reputation as being among the U.S. church's leading experts on priestly sex abuse. As church documents and newly available court materials reveal, Ingels was used -- with Levada's approval -- to advise U.S. bishops and their aides on the handling of cases of clergy sex abuse in their dioceses. Ingels served as an expert witness on behalf of the church in cases all over the country, helping defend against legal claims by alleged clergy abuse victims. In addition, court records show, Ingels provided legal advice and spiritual counsel to priests accused of molesting children; published scholarly articles on the abuse issue under the imprimatur of the Canon Law Society of America, a group devoted to the study of church law; and lectured on the topic at clerical gatherings in the United States and abroad.
Incredibly, considering his background as an accused molester, Ingels also served -- again with Levada's blessing -- as the canonical prosecutor of notorious former Stockton priest and convicted child molester Oliver O'Grady, who is alleged to have engaged in sex with at least 25 children while a cleric. As the so-called "promoter of justice" in the case, Ingels played a key role in the church's frantic efforts to defrock O'Grady and thus avoid unwelcome publicity upon the Stockton priest's release from prison in the year 2000.