By MICHAEL LUO
In January 2006, Cardinal William J. Levada, the highest ranking American official in the Vatican, slipped into a San Francisco office building, sidestepping a gaggle of media lying in wait. On leave from Rome, he was submitting to a day of questioning before a flotilla of plaintiffs’ lawyers.
For eight strenuous hours, the cardinal was pressed to explain why he had decided to return priests who were confirmed sexual abusers back to ministry. He acknowledged that he had failed to notify the authorities of allegations of abuse. He struggled to recall why he had chosen not to share information with parishioners.
The questions related to abuse cases that Cardinal Levada dealt with while he was an American bishop; he oversaw the archdioceses of Portland and San Francisco from 1986 to 2005. But by the time the questions were being asked, the cardinal had assumed an exalted position at the Vatican just vacated by his old friend Pope Benedict XVI, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
That put him in charge of adjudicating sexual abuse cases involving priests worldwide, as Benedict had been before him. And like Benedict, whose handling of delicate cases before he became pope has come under scrutiny, Cardinal Levada often did not act as assertively as he could have on abuse cases.
Cardinal Levada was ahead of other church officials on the issue at times, setting up an independent committee to vet abuse cases and calling for greater accountability from church leaders.
But an examination of his record, pieced together from interviews and a review of thousands of pages of court documents, show that he generally followed the prevailing practice of the church hierarchy, often giving accused priests the benefit of the doubt and being reluctant to remove them from ministry.
Erin Olson, a Portland lawyer who has been involved in numerous sexual abuse lawsuits against the Portland Archdiocese, said, “It’s no surprise that the Catholic Church continues to be mired in the abuse scandal when the cardinal put in charge of how the church as a whole responds to child sex abuse allegations did such a poor job himself as a bishop and archbishop.” She was largely responsible for forcing Cardinal Levada to testify that day in 2006.
Cardinal Levada did not respond to requests for comment. Jeffrey Lena, a lawyer in Berkeley, Calif., who is representing the Holy See in lawsuits, said the cardinal had not been given enough time to respond to a list of questions submitted to him 10 days ago.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, also declined to comment.
In a recent interview with PBS NewsHour, Cardinal Levada said the church had been through a gradual “learning process.”
“It took us a lot of time, I think, to understand how to deal with this part, and it took a lot of time to understand how much damage is done to victims, to children, by this kind of behavior,” said Cardinal Levada, who has strongly criticized media coverage of the abuse scandal.
Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City, who served under Cardinal Levada in San Francisco as his vicar for clergy, said the cardinal had been unfairly maligned.
“My own judgment is he gets categorized negatively,” Bishop Wester said. “I don’t think it’s deserved. I just think he did right by the victims. He’s not somebody who’s going to slap you on the back, be super gregarious, the life of the party kind of guy. He’s more serious, more reserved. Sometimes people misinterpret that.
“In his own way, I think he’s very transparent and forthright,” Bishop Wester said.
Suzanne Giraudo, a psychologist and chairwoman of the San Francisco Archdiocese’s Independent Review board, which evaluates the credibility of sexual abuse accusations, praised Cardinal Levada, saying he wanted to “do what was right, not only for the priest but for the victim.”
An Early Warning
An assessment of Cardinal Levada’s performance in his current job at the Vatican is complicated by the fact that his congregation’s decisions are shrouded in confidentiality rules.
Canon lawyers said cases had been handled more efficiently by the Vatican since procedures were clarified in 2001. Nevertheless, it is not difficult to find cases that have dragged on for several years. The congregation has added staff members, but it still has only 10 people handling cases, and there have been more than 3,000 in the past decade.
Several recent cases that have become public have raised questions about whether the Vatican is even now acting aggressively enough.
American bishops have long argued that they were ignorant of the gravity of sexual abuse in the church until relatively recently. It was not until 2002 that the American church, with Cardinal Levada as one of its most prominent leaders, adopted a zero-tolerance policy in which priests who were credibly accused of sexual abuse were automatically suspended from ministry.
But Cardinal Levada himself heard the siren much earlier. In the spring of 1985, the alarm was sounded by an unlikely trio of concerned Catholics, the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a Vatican canon lawyer; Raymond Mouton Jr., a Louisiana criminal lawyer who defended the Rev. Gilbert Gauthe, a notorious pedophile priest; and the Rev. Michael Peterson, a psychiatrist.
In the wake of the Gauthe case, the three men produced a strongly worded 92-page report that argued for immediate action to deal with sexual molestation in the church.
In May 1985, Cardinal Levada, then a young auxiliary bishop from Los Angeles, was sent by church leaders to meet with the men. The meeting at a Chicago airport hotel went on all day, Father Doyle and Mr. Mouton said recently, with Bishop Levada going through their report almost line by line. They said he seemed enthusiastic about their proposals.
Two weeks later, however, the bishop called Father Doyle and told him that their report was being shelved and that the bishops would convene their own committee to examine the issue. But no such group materialized.
Two decades later, in various sworn depositions, Cardinal Levada would assert that he recalled little from the meeting. But his detailed briefing would have given him a far deeper awareness of the issue than a vast majority of church officials at the time.
Soon after he ascended to the top position at the Portland Archdiocese in 1986, he was forced to deal with the case of the Rev. Thomas B. Laughlin, a prominent priest who was arrested in 1983 and served six months in prison for sexual abuse.
In July 1988, Archbishop Levada wrote to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future pope, who headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Their friendship dated from several years earlier when the American had been a staff member at the congregation. Archbishop Levada laid out a four-page argument for the dismissal of Father Laughlin from the priesthood, which was granted.
In contrast, just a few months later, Archbishop Levada did not aggressively pursue a complaint that the Rev. Aldo Orso-Manzonetta had invited a boy to stay overnight at the rectory.
Church records indicate that he spoke to Father Orso-Manzonetta and told him not to repeat the mistake. It is not clear if he checked the priest’s personnel file. But there was a long trail of complaints against the priest, made public years later when the archdiocese released reams of priest personnel records as part of bankruptcy proceedings.
Four years later, more rumors about the priest’s relationships with boys and under-age young men surfaced. This time, the Rev. Charles Lienert, the archdiocese’s vicar for clergy, sent a memo in May 1992 to Archbishop Levada detailing a history of accusations against Father Orso-Manzonetta.
It was not until 1994, however, when another accuser came forward, that Father Orso-Manzonetta was sent for a psychological evaluation. A letter from Father Lienert to the examiner that was in the priest’s personnel file expressed concern about the sheer number of allegations, saying, “These records are discoverable should someone choose to sue us.”
Father Orso-Manzonetta then retired, and he died in 1996. But in 2000, several men who said he had abused them as altar boys sued the archdiocese. The case was eventually settled for an undisclosed amount.
In at least two instances during his time in Portland, Archbishop Levada chose to return priests with proven allegations of sexual abuse against them to ministry after treatment, with the agreement of therapists, according to church records.
At another point, the archbishop overruled advisers who recommended that the archdiocese make a general announcement encouraging sexual abuse victims to come forward, following new revelations about a priest who had molested children in the 1950s.
Archbishop Levada also apparently rebuffed the archdiocese’s lawyer, Bob McMenamin, when he urged him to hold a seminar for clergy members on sexual abuse, according to testimony from the lawyer in an ethics complaint that the archbishop filed against Mr. McMenamin after he went on to represent a man in a sexual abuse lawsuit against the archdiocese.
“He said he had more important things for his priests to do,” Mr. McMenamin said.
Cases in San Francisco
In 1995, Cardinal Levada moved to the San Francisco Archdiocese. Early on, he dealt with two priests who he learned had sexually abused children years before and decided not to restrict either.
In the case of the Rev. Milton Walsh, who was the rector of the city’s cathedral, Archbishop Levada testified in a 2005 deposition that a therapist had concluded that an episode in which Father Walsh had molested a 13-year-old boy, Jay Seaman, in 1984 was not indicative of a “tendency toward sexual abuse.”
Later, the police would record an extraordinary telephone call between Mr. Seaman and Father Walsh, in which Father Walsh said that he had learned not to put himself in situations where he would be tempted. He said he had told Archbishop Levada, “You can trust me, ’cause I don’t trust myself.”
The archbishop went through a similar calculus with the Rev. Gregory Ingels, a canon lawyer who had become a national expert on clergy sexual abuse. He would be charged by prosecutors in 2003 with “unlawful oral copulation” with a teenage boy over an episode from 1972.
Fathers Walsh and Ingels were suspended from ministry in 2002 under the zero-tolerance policy adopted by American bishops. The criminal charges against both men were dropped because of the statute of limitations.
In late 1997, Archbishop Levada faced a case in which the suspicions of abuse were current, not decades old. The Rev. John P. Conley, a former United States attorney who had become a priest, happened upon a flustered teenage boy in his church’s rectory.
Father Conley later said in a sworn deposition, released by his lawyer, Michael P. Guta, that he also spotted a man crawling away. The boy told the priest, an associate pastor in the parish, that he had been “wrestling” with the Rev. James Aylward, the head pastor.
Father Conley said he contacted the district attorney’s office even though he was told by an archdiocesan official that these matters were usually handled “in house.”
Father Conley also discovered that priests had never been briefed about a new state law that made members of the clergy mandatory reporters of suspected sexual abuse and that had gone into effect 11 months earlier. A bishop told him that church officials were still studying it.
Instead of imposing restrictions on Father Aylward, Archbishop Levada suspended Father Conley after the pair clashed over the handling of the episode. The archbishop cited reports of “anger outbursts” with parishioners.
Father Conley filed a defamation lawsuit against the archbishop, contending that he had been punished for reporting sexual abuse. Father Aylward, who was never criminally charged, admitted under oath in a deposition more than two years after the episode that he had wrestled with young boys for years and gotten sexual gratification out of i. At that point, he was suspended.
Father Conley eventually won a settlement from the archdiocese.
By the end of Cardinal Levada’s term in San Francisco, his approach on such cases had evolved. The archdiocese became among the first in the United States to create an independent committee to investigate sexual abuse cases.
Even so, the committee’s first chairman, James Jenkins, a psychologist, resigned in 2003 over differences with Archbishop Levada. “It was compromised by, really, disingenuousness and actions of deception and manipulation,” he said, citing the secrecy surrounding the board’s findings and other issues.
Less than two years later, Pope Benedict XVI brought his old friend to Rome.
Michael Powell contributed reporting from New York, and Malia Wollan from San Rafael, Calif.