Vatican’s Point Man on Abuse Was Sucessfully Sued by Whistleblowing Priest

Politics Daily Contributor – Jason Berry

With Pope Benedict XVI in a stance of passive silence on the clergy sex abuse crisis, the Vatican strategy of attacking the news media has made the pope more vulnerable to criticism. Loyal Catholics, and even political leaders inclined to give the pontiff the benefit of the doubt, are wondering why he can’t say what went wrong and how he will make structural changes.

Instead, just before Easter, the Vatican launched a counteroffensive against the media in general and The New York Times in particular. The opening salvo was Cardinal William Levada’s critique on the Vatican Web site of the Times’ coverage of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s failure to defrock a priest who had abused deaf students at a Wisconsin school.

Levada’s oversight of a controversial case is now making news. In 2005, the Rev. Joseph Jeyapaul, who had been working in the diocese of Crookston, Minn., flew back to his native India to visit his ailing mother. Soon thereafter he was accused of raping a teenage girl in Minnesota. Bishop Victor Balke of Crookston wrote to Levada’s office: “I cannot in good conscience allow this matter to be passed over. … In my mind that would be a shameful act of betrayal towards the women and girls in India to whom Fr. Jeyapaul could at present pose a serious risk.”

Jeyapaul, who has been working in a church administrative capacity in Ootacamund, India, told CNN: “It is a lie — it is totally a lie.” But authorities in Roseau County, Minn., have an arrest warrant and consider the priest a fugitive from justice.

“Cardinal Levada and the pope himself are and continue to be the source of the problem,” St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson told ABC. Anderson was referring to correspondence between Levada’s office and the bishop, which he obtained in a civil suit representing the alleged victim and another unidentified teenage girl. In May 2006, a representative of Levada’s office responded to Bishop Balke that the Vatican had requested church officials in India that “Father Jeyapaul’s priestly life be monitored so that he does not constitute a risk to minors and does not create a scandal among the faithful.”

On Monday, as Jeyapaul asserted his innocence in media statements, the Catholic Bishops Conference of India and the Vatican said they would support his extradition. On Tuesday, The New York Times reported that Jeyapaul said he didn’t know about the criminal case until this week and would be willing to return to the United States to prove his innocence.

Making Levada the point man in responding to media criticism of the pope was a dicey move. Pope Benedict chose Levada in 2005 to succeed him as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the office that historically ruled on disputes of theology. In 2001, Pope John Paul II gave Ratzinger control over abuse cases and whether to defrock clerics. To his credit, Ratzinger took on an issue that until then was scattered among other departments.

But choosing Levada to bring justice to the Vatican was always problematic, given his record as archbishop of San Francisco and before that, Portland, Ore. Levada used the same tactics of other bishops in sheltering perpetrators, which spurred civil lawsuits and bad headlines. Moreover, Levada stands alone among American bishops in having been sued, successfully, by a whistle-blowing priest, Jon Conley, who reported another priest to the police for making sexual advances on a teenage boy. Father Conley received a six-figure settlement from the archdiocese. Conley’s struggle offers a cameo of what’s wrong in the Vatican today.

Conley, now 66, was an assistant U.S. attorney in Michigan who decided on a career change in the late 1980s, and entered seminary in San Francisco. In 1997, as he entered his rectory, he saw the pastor, Father Gregory Aylward, crawling toward the back door. A flustered 14-year-old boy had just resumed his post as phone receptionist. Suspecting the boy was too embarrassed to admit that the priest had been making sexual advances, Conley met with an auxiliary bishop (Levada was out of town) who told him, “We usually keep these things in-house.” As a former prosecutor, Conley knew that this was wrong, and that it was illegal. He personally notified the San Mateo District Attorney’s Office, which ordered an investigation.

Apparently frightened by the questioning of the police, the boy initially said he and Aylward were wrestling. No charges were filed. Conley nonetheless told the chancery he couldn’t live with a man he considered to be a pedophile, and moved into a hotel. A chancery priest told Conley not to say “pedophile” or mention the accusations to anyone. The boy quit his rectory job. Conley met the family. The mother wept, saying she just couldn’t force her son to testify about Aylward’s advances, which had been going on for months. When Conley met with Archbishop Levada and a chancery monsignor, he knew the archdiocese was closing the wagons around Aylward.

When I interviewed Conley in 2005 for San Francisco Magazine, he told me that Levada used the word “calumny” when discussing the accusations against Aylward. Since a monsignor was also present, taking notes, Conley pulled out a tape recorder to avoid being set up as a scapegoat. “You don’t trust me?” said Levada. Ordered to turn off the tape recorder, Conley refused, he said. “I’m placing you on administrative leave,” said Levada. “Think about obedience.”

They met again privately, no tape recorder; Levada wanted Conley to undergo psychological evaluation. Conley refused. When a news article on Conley’s forced leave broke in The San Francisco Examiner, an archdiocesan statement said: “The archdiocese investigation determined that the wrestling incident was inappropriate and of poor judgment, but nothing sexual in nature. … The archdiocese instructed [Conley] to report the incident to civil authorities, and strongly supports the reporting of all incidents of suspected child abuse or neglect. It was [Conley’s] behavior subsequent to the reporting which was unacceptable.”

Incensed to read that the archdiocese had told him to contact the authorities, Conley fired off a letter to the Examiner: “Why does the archdiocese of San Francisco not have written policies and procedures in place for priests to deal with situations of abuse?” He then sued Levada and the archdiocese for defamation and infliction of emotional distress. Conley wanted a public apology and procedures for handling abuse allegations that would protect priests like himself. Levada wrote him, saying that if he did not withdraw the suit and “commence at once a program of remedial assistance … I will have no alternative but to impose on you the censure of suspension forbidding your exercise of all rights, privileges and faculties associated with the priestly ministry.”

Conley’s suit was dismissed, the California court ruling that Levada was protected by the wall of separation between church and state. But the boy’s family then sued the archdiocese. Aylward resigned as pastor after admitting in a deposition that he had gotten sexual gratification from wrestling with minors for years. The archdiocese negotiated a $750,000 settlement with the family and removed Aylward from ministry. Conley’s attorney then appealed the dismissal of the priest’s case.

In late 2002, a California appellate court ruled that the law mandating that clergy report suspected abuse superseded the church’s privilege under the church-state divide. Conley, the whistle-blower, had a legitimate grievance against Levada for defamation. Levada wanted to avoid testifying against a priest. The church issued a statement saying that “Father Conley was right in what he did in reporting the incident to the police … and that there is no retaliation against priests for reporting.” In a settlement agreement, the archdiocese “prefunded” Conley’s retirement. He bought a handsome two-bedroom apartment, and was doing substitute work for priests on vacation when we met, with no parish of his own.

Levada’s behavior is striking because he should have known better — much better.

In the early 1980s he worked under Ratzinger in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as a staff theologian, before pedophilia cases were a big issue.

In 1985, as a newly named California auxiliary bishop, Levada, at the behest of Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, met with three men who had written a pioneering document warning the bishops about an impending crisis, with guidelines to remove priests, reach out to victims, and deal openly with law enforcement and the media. The authors were Father Thomas Doyle, an American canon lawyer then serving at the Vatican Embassy; Father Michael Peterson, a psychiatrist who founded St. Luke Institute in Suitland, Md., a treatment hospital for clergy; and F. Ray Mouton, an attorney in Lafayette, La., who was handling criminal defense of Father Gilbert Gauthe, the first pedophile priest to make national headlines. The confidential report warned that absent a solid policy, the church could face $1 billion in losses.

“To allow a priest to continue to function, endangering the health of children, following the receipt of private, confidential knowledge that this priest victimized a child is considered to be ‘criminal neglect’ (a crime in many states),” the authors wrote.

In May 1985, Levada met the three men at the Marriott Hotel at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Years later, in a deposition with plaintiff attorney Jeff Anderson, Levada said: “I was there as a point of reference, as a listener, to bring back a report … to Cardinal Law. I don’t recall whether I told them I thought [the report’s plan] was a good idea or not … I tried to do my assignment. But I did not have enough information to make a judgment about this issue at that time.”

In Portland, he did have information, and his strategy offended the church’s general counsel. Robert McMenamin represented the archdiocese from 1983 to 1989.

When Levada arrived in 1986, an Oregon priest named Tom Laughlin was in jail after molesting altar boys. Three previous archbishops had known about Laughlin but never restricted his ministry or notified the police. McMenamin urged Levada to tell church officials of their obligation to report to authorities (as the 1985 report insisted). Levada declined.

McMenamin resigned as church counsel and changed his legal practice. Later he filed lawsuits on behalf of abuse victims. Levada petitioned the Oregon State Bar Association to disqualify McMenamin from such cases, but the state Supreme Court dismissed Levada’s claim. McMenamin wrote to his legal successor at the archdiocese: “You speak of loyalty. If this means I should not help victims who have been turned away by church authorities, then I think your statement is ridiculous and inhumane. I have loyalty to both my religion and the confidences of former clients, but not to church officials who deny justice to victims.”

In 1995, Levada became archbishop of San Francisco. In 2002, amid the pounding media coverage from the Boston scandal, Levada appointed a fact-finding Independent Review Board of primarily lay people to examine personnel files on questionable priests and interview witnesses. With old cases making news in San Francisco, he wanted to stave off a wider scandal. Psychologist James Jenkins, a former Holy Cross brother, became the IRB chair. Father Greg Ingels, a canon lawyer, helped set it up. A detective began investigating. But Jenkins soon came to doubt Levada’s honesty. “The church wouldn’t publish the names of priests we recommended removing,” he told me in 2005. “Disclosure encourages victims to come forward, which is what the church should be doing. Where was the bishops’ moral outrage over the incidents we were uncovering? They seemed to be running around, covering up. Why wasn’t their reaction like Conley’s, to contact the police?”

In May 2003, board members read in the newspaper that Father Ingels had been indicted for allegedly having oral sex with a 15-year-old boy at Marin Catholic High in the 1970s. Jenkins was furious. The priest who helped organize the abuse-oversight board, an abuser? Then the board learned that Levada had known about accusations against Ingels since 1996. Not only had Levada allowed him to remain in the ministry, he used Ingels as a canon law expert on the abuse crisis. In the mid-1990s, Ingels assisted in the process of defrocking the priest who’d abused up to 25 children in the Stockton diocese. In 2002, he helped fashion the church’s zero-tolerance policy and wrote a guidebook for U.S. bishops on how to handle abuse cases. Ingels stepped down. Jenkins quit and became a high-profile critic of Levada.

Levada refused my interview requests in 2005. Soon thereafter, Benedict sent a rope ladder that took him out of the muck of depositions and lawsuits in San Francisco, up and away to the Eternal City, where he presumes to speak with credibility on these matters today.