Although the bishops' carefully crafted public statements at their annual meeting in Baltimore this week received widespread media attention, it was the private talks with various clergy that were the most enlightening — in particular, an encounter I had with Cdl. William Levada.
On Thursday, as multiple bishops were checking out of the Marriott Waterfront hotel and waiting in the lobby for taxis to the airport, we spotted Levada chatting with fellow bishops in the sitting area. The 82-year-old cardinal had just the day before stood up during the bishops' closed-door meeting and spoken out against the measure to release the files on sexual predator Abp. Theodore McCarrick, claiming such a vote would only widen the divide between the U.S bishops and Pope Francis. Levada supported New Jersey Cdl. Joseph Tobin's suggestion that the proposal should be revised to state support for the Vatican investigation.
Levada, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was former archbishop of San Francisco and Portland, where he had a mixed record on sex abuse reform, in some cases returning known abusers to active ministry, and even implicated in the punishment of a whistleblower priest.
I was with George Neumayr, journalist for the American Spectator, in the hotel lobby, and both of us walked over to Levada to ask a few questions about the bishops' meeting and get a better understanding of why he opposed the measure to release the McCarrick files.
"The Vatican is already conducting an investigation," he told us, and the bishops were deferring to them on this matter. We asked how the laity could trust the Vatican investigation when Abp. Carlo Maria Viganò's testimony revealed Pope Francis himself protected and promoted McCarrick.
"What does Viganò know?" Levada asked, writing off the former papal nuncio-turned-whistleblower as merely a man with personal opinions. "Besides, we question his motives."
"But his motives don't matter so much as the evidence he presented," I said.
"His motives do matter," Levada shot back, refusing to address Viganò's claims.
Since the release of the nuncio's testimony, Cdl. Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, has confirmed that not only did Pope Benedict impose penalties on McCarrick (he was forbidden to travel or make public appearances), Pope Francis ignored the penalties for his sexual misconduct and promoted McCarrick to the role of trusted advisor and "kingmaker" in naming U.S. bishops.
"The laity have lost confidence that the Vatican is trustworthy on this, and are tired of the complicity and cover-up," I said to Levada.
"Oh, the laity," he said with a dismissive wave of the hand. "I've met so many laity throughout my life, and they're all over the spectrum." The tone of disdain in his voice was unmistakable.
He was similarly dismissive of the terms "complicity" and "cover-up," claiming they're favorite words used by the media with little meaning — a response that left me nearly speechless, in light of the Church's "Summer of Shame," in which McCarrick, who was the public face of the response to the 2002 Boston sex abuse scandal, turned out to be a sexual predator himself, allowed to rise through the ranks to become one of the most powerful cardinals in the Church — with the knowledge of multiple bishops. In short, their complicity and cover-up helped him advance in the hierarchy.
"Catholics are asking for more transparency from the bishops," I insisted.
"Oh, transparency is another media watchword," Levada said, calling it a "mantra" used by the media for our own agenda. I reminded him that the bishops themselves have used that word in promising greater honesty and clarity in handling sex abuse.
"Well, only after the media used it," he retorted.
When challenged on the existence of a homosexual network in the Church, Levada downplayed the problem, claiming he knew of "some homosexual priests," but a small number, implying they're not much of a problem. It was clear he was uninterested in pursuing this line of questioning.
I found the entire conversation fruitless and disappointing.
Levada was implicated in the cover-up of priestly sex abuse and punishment of a whistleblower priest in the late 1990s, after Fr. James Conley reported sexual misconduct of fellow priest Fr. James Aylward. Conley had walked in on Aylward and a 15-year-old boy on the floor of a darkened room in the rectory building at night engaging in what appeared to be sexual activity. The boy jumped up when Conley walked in, panting heavily, and Conley could see a man crawling away in the dark. The teen said it was Fr. Aylward. Although the boy said they were only "wrestling," Aylward admitted two years later he had indeed engaged in sexual activity with teen boys.
Conley reported the misconduct to local law enforcement — leading to Conley's suspension by Levada, the archbishop claiming that the suspension was a result of the priest's "angry outbursts" against parishioners. Conley filed a defamation lawsuit against the archdiocese claiming he was being punished for blowing the whistle on sex abuse.
Sealed court documents made public in 2004 reveal Levada had said he himself would not have reported Aylward to law enforcement. After criticism, the archdiocese clarified that Levada would have taken the teen's word that the two were merely wrestling — in spite of the highly suspect circumstances. The archdiocese ultimately settled the case with Conley, waiting two years to remove Aylward from active ministry only after he publicly admitted to homosexual misconduct with teens.
Towards the end of his tenure in San Francisco, Levada set up an independent committee to investigate sex abuse. But its first chairman, psychologist James Jenkins, resigned in disgust in 2003, claiming the board was "compromised" by "disingenuousness and actions of deception and manipulation."
In 2006, Levada was named to head the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog arm, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where he oversaw and adjudicated clerical sex abuse cases.
Cardinal Blase Cupich has blamed the current abuse crisis in the Church on "clericalism." If clericalism means an attitude of arrogant superiority, by which clerics use their positions of authority to protect abusers and maintain the status quo, then clericalism was on full display in our conversation with Levada in the lobby of the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront hotel Thursday. Levada's dismissive response to our questioning, his disdain for the laity, his contempt for media in honest pursuit of truth — all of these revealed a man who had little interest in getting to the bottom of the abuse scandal or exposing the network of complicit clergy who helped men like McCarrick rise to power. As long as such cardinals have a say in Church matters, laity can hope for little reform.