American Priest Steps Into Ratzinger's Former Role

San Francisco Archbishop William Levada is in his first few weeks as the prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, a position last occupied by Pope Benedict. Levada is the highest-ranking American at the Vatican. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Colin Fogarty reports.

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The former archbishop of San Francisco is in his first few weeks as the highest-ranking American at the Vatican. Pope Benedict named William Levada to be the precept of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, a job last held by the pope himself. In the history of the church, no American has ever risen this far and, as Colin Fogarty reports from Oregon Public Broadcasting, Levada brings with him some nagging details from the clergy sex abuse scandal here in the United States.

COLIN FOGARTY reporting:

Like the Catholic Church itself, Archbishop William Levada straddles the American political divide. He's an active voice in the Christian right, opposing abortion, physician-assisted suicide and gay marriage. Yet at a gala send-off last month, San Francisco's mayor, Gavin Newsom, widely seen as a liberal, thanked Levada for his charitable work.

Mayor GAVIN NEWSOM (San Francisco): Your humanitarian efforts dealing with poverty, HIV and AIDS, housing, working closely and collaboratively with labor, are quite an example. But more important than everything else, I just want to thank you for recognizing, while our differences matter, our common humanity matters so much more.

FOGARTY: Levada's new job puts him in the position of steering Roman Catholic doctrine throughout the globe, yet he leaves the US dogged by questions raised from his positions as archbishop of Portland from 1986 to 1995, and then archbishop of San Francisco until last month.

First, there's the case of Stephanie Collopy. Eleven years ago, she sued the Portland Archdiocese when she became pregnant after an affair with a young man studying to be a priest. In its legal defense, the archdiocese responded by saying Collopy was partly responsible because she had unprotected sex. The attorney who wrote that defense, Rick Kuhn, says those were his words, not Levada's.

Mr. RICK KUHN (Attorney): It was something that was really a fairly minor case and the archdiocese's involvement was very minor, so highly unlikely that he would have ever seen it.

FOGARTY: Still, Levada's critics say the archbishop should have ensured that the church's legal tactics be consistent with Catholic doctrine, which forbids birth control. Collopy was eventually successful in her fight for child support.

Left unresolved, though, are a number lawsuits involving clergy sex abuse filed when Levada was archbishop in both Portland and San Francisco. Many of those suits claim church leaders, including Levada, moved pedophile priests without warning parishioners. The sheer size of those lawsuits prompted the Portland Archdiocese to declare bankruptcy last year, a case that lingers today in federal court. Portland attorney Erin Olson has subpoenaed Levada to answer questions in that case; a subpoena delivered before a farewell Mass last month.

Ms. ERIN OLSON (Attorney): This pattern of moving known child molesters from parish to parish is not unique to Portland. Since 1985, Archbishop Levada has been actively involved in setting a policy of the American Catholic Church.

FOGARTY: Including national policies on how to respond to priests accused of sex abuse, she says. Advocates of those sex abuse victims are angry they've had to fight so hard in court to get what they believe is justice. Dan McNevin is with a San Francisco Bay Area chapter of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. He sees a conflict between Catholic values and what he sees as the hardball tactics the church has used to defend itself in the courtroom.

Mr. DAN McNEVIN (SNAP): Bishop Levada led the charge in actually litigating these suits. He lost five in a row. And after losing his fifth case, he began to settle cases because he wasn't going to win.

FOGARTY: Levada did settle 31 sex abuse cases for a total of $42 million. That's about half the lawsuits facing the Archdiocese of San Francisco. And he's issued repeated statements apologizing on behalf of the Catholic priests accused of sex abuse. He defended his record at a press conference last month in San Francisco.

Archbishop WILLIAM LEVADA (San Francisco): There will always be some people who are not happy with one thing or another, but I think on the whole I can leave San Francisco with a good conscience about how we have done here. You'd like to have everybody happy, but it just doesn't happen much in the world that we live in.

FOGARTY: The San Francisco Archdiocese says, since 2002, it's complied with a national policy of zero tolerance of priests who face credible claims of abuse. In fact, Levada helped draft that policy at a bishops conference that year in Dallas. Father Thomas Reese, former editor of the Catholic weekly America Magazine and the author of "Inside the Vatican," says in Rome Levada will take his experience in dealing with the US clergy sex abuse scandal worldwide.

Father THOMAS REESE (Formmr Editor, America Magazine): I think this is a plus to have somebody who has been involved in the discussions, knows what's going on; will be able, as a result, to take decisive action and support what the bishops have been doing here in terms of removing these priests from ministry.

FOGARTY: Levada still has work to do back in the US. Just as he begins his job in Rome, he's agreed to return here in January for a day-long legal deposition in the Portland Archdiocese bankruptcy case prompted by the sex abuse lawsuits. For NPR News, I'm Colin Fogarty in Portland.

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