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In April 2004, when questioned under oath by lawyers for victims sexually abused by priests, San Francisco's former archbishop, William J. Levada, was asked about Father Joseph Baccellieri, a parish priest accused of child molestation whom Levada removed from ministry in 1992 while archbishop of Portland. Levada restored Baccellieri to his post two years later.
"I believe there was some allegation that occurred while I was there," he said, when asked about Baccellieri's circumstances. A lawyer for the archbishop quickly interrupted to prevent Levada from saying anything more about the priest. A few months later, in a letter from Levada defending his decision to place Baccellieri back in ministry despite knowing that he had molested -- published in the archdiocesan newspaper Catholic San Francisco-- Levada wrote: "With regard to Father Baccellieri, I removed him from ministry in 1992 when I received an allegation of sexual abuse back in the 1970s."
But Levada wasn't telling all that he knew.
SF Weekly has learned that in 1993 -- the year before the archbishop's controversial decision to restore Baccellieri to his priestly duties -- Levada knew about allegations that the priest had abused not one but three male victims, and that Levada authorized secret payments to each of them after they threatened to make the allegations public in a lawsuit.
Sources familiar with the matter, and who spoke on condition of anonymity, tell the Weekly that the men were paid undisclosed sums and agreed not to sue the archdiocese in return for their pledging to keep the payments confidential. One of the victims, who claimed that Baccellieri had sodomized him for several years, insisted on and was granted a private meeting with Levada as a condition of his signing off on the arrangement, sources say.
Bud Bunce, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Portland, and who has worked there since 1991, says he has no knowledge of any such arrangement. However, Bunce says that "in general, if someone approaches us and wishes not to file a lawsuit and they have an allegation regarding child abuse, those situations can be settled [confidentially]."
Levada left San Francisco for the Vatican last August after being appointed by Pope Benedict XVI as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, making him arguably the world's second most powerful Roman Catholic prelate. (He was Portland's archbishop from 1986 to 1995.) His successor, Bishop George Niederauer of the Diocese of Salt Lake City, is to be installed as San Francisco's new archbishop Feb. 15.
Having spent $53 million to settle more than 100 claims of priestly sex abuse, Portland in 2004 became the nation's first Roman Catholic archdiocese to declare bankruptcy. Dozens of other cases are in limbo while a bankruptcy court sorts out the archdiocese's finances. On Jan. 9, Levada is scheduled to be deposed in San Francisco by lawyers for several of those plaintiffs, including some whose alleged abuse occurred during his tenure there.
In his letter in Catholic San Francisco, Levada said that he restored Baccellieri's priestly duties after "extensive therapeutic treatment" and after determining "that he had been truly repentant and could be trusted to engage in limited ministry with proper supervision."
Records show that Baccellieri served as either pastor or associate pastor in four Portland-area parishes between 1994 and 2001, when he went on leave to study canon law. In 2002, after U.S. bishops adopted their so-called "zero-tolerance" sex abuse policy, and long after Levada had come to San Francisco, Baccellieri was once again removed from ministry.
As it turns out, the accusations that Levada knew about before reinstating the priest aren't the only complaints against Baccellieri.
Since 2004, four other men have come forward claiming that Baccellieri sexually abused them as teenagers during the same 1971-1975 period as the men whose secret payments Levada approved. They have filed lawsuits against the Portland Archdiocese.
All seven of Baccellieri's alleged victims fit a similar profile. Each was a member of the band at the same Catholic high school in Portland where Baccellieri taught music from the late 1960s until the mid-'70s. He is alleged to have abused the teenagers both in his residence at a retirement home where he also served as chaplain and at a beach house in Lincoln City, Ore.
David Slader, an attorney for three of the men who have filed lawsuits, says it is "unconscionable" that Levada never bothered to report Baccellieri to law enforcement after learning that the priest was a sex offender. (Bunce, the archdiocese spokesman, says that the church would not have been obligated under state law to turn over Baccellieri for criminal prosecution in the 1990s because by then the alleged victims were adults.)
"All the evidence we've been able to find demonstrates that Archbishop Levada's sole concern was to maintain a veil of secrecy and to continue the false impression that Father Baccellieri was a trustworthy and dutiful priest," Slader says. "His efforts to protect other children from being preyed upon were halfhearted at best."
One of Baccellieri's accusers confronted the priest in a secretly recorded phone call in 2004 (which, unlike in California, is legal under Oregon law). During the call, Baccellieri acknowledged that he had not told Levada about all of the teenagers with whom he had had sex.