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Levada: suprised by a financial ‘nightmare’

NCR Staff

Sent into Santa Rosa, Calif., in July 1999 as apostolic administrator, San Francisco Archbishop William J. Levada was no stranger to disgraced Bishop G. Patrick Ziemann. Both are former Los Angeles auxiliary bishops.

While feeling sympathy for a colleague, Levada nonetheless had to undo Ziemann’s damage, a tragedy Levada describes as in “two parts, both sad, and not necessarily connected” -- the sexual scandal and the financial crisis.

Levada, in an extensive telephone interview with NCR, said Ziemann was able to resign quickly when Fr. Jorge Hume Salas filed suit against him July 16, because Ziemann’s resignation had already been accepted in Rome.

The financial part, “which I must say was a nightmare for me,” Levada said, “only came to my attention after I was appointed apostolic administrator. The next week I learned there was a cash flow problem and asked my financial officer to investigate.” That, Levada said, was when he received the first reports of “several years of spending beyond diocesan means and risky investments.”

An example of diocesan overspending, said Levada, was Santa Rosa’s nine youth ministers. “That’s more than any diocese I know in the West, including Los Angeles. That kinds of sums it up. There’s all these wonderful things you want to do but if you can’t pay for them the thing’s going to fall apart.”

Asked if he understood the anger expressed at the St. Mary’s, Ukiah, town meeting, Levada replied, “The night I had free was the one in Ukiah. I’d had a lot of mail from them -- the center of the storm. I knew there was anger, but I was surprised and saddened. Not that I expected everyone to be smiling, but I felt some of the angry statements did not reflect the broader understanding of church and the need for reconciliation and forgiveness.”

That, he said, “disappointed me. But on other hand, for many people it was their first chance to tell me or other diocesan authorities how they felt.” He agreed that the Santa Rosa diocese has had more than its share of clerical sex scandals.

Levada said he had spoken with Hume Salas, placed him on administrative leave, told him he is “not able to function as a priest. I’ve given him the reasons why.”

To a question on the laity seeking new structures for the diocese, not least financial, Levada said, “I will not cover up. Everything was not known all at once. People think I have some sort of clairvoyance, I suppose. Transparency is a good word. It should be the motto for our financial accountability. We try to do that in San Francisco. [The people of Santa Rosa] have really received full disclosure. With regard to [changing diocesan] structures, it’s not my place as apostolic administrator to make decisions about new structures or what kind of lay participation. The financial council is the canonical structure, and had it been in place it would have prevented the crisis. I’m pretty well convinced that using existing structures appropriately will do what needs to be done.”

Levada said that in the dioceses included in the San Francisco metropolitan province, the bishops want the diocesan finance officers to arrive at a consensus on a new level of financial oversight. Each diocese would have its annual audits and finance council minutes reviewed by teams of finance officers from other dioceses. Audits, financial statements and a “user friendly” narrative would be published in diocesan papers, as some dioceses already do.

“If it works out well,” said Levada, “and I believe it will, I believe it will become a model for the church throughout the United States.”

Questioned about yet another sexual scandal prompting Catholics’ calls for optional celibacy, married priests and women priests, Levada said, “Certainly its important to look at questions of priestly celibacy, whether we’re forming future priests properly for that.” Levada, who as Portland, Ore., archbishop and San Francisco archbishop has been responsible for two seminaries, continued, “I think seminaries have done a good job in updating. Let me also say that the sexual revolution of the past 35 years in this country has hit priests, religious and married people very hard.

“Scandals of marriage, the infidelities, divorces so forth,” said Levada, “are not a matter of public comment all the time unless you’re the president of the United States. But this has been a very difficult time for many, many people and the pressures of our hypersexual culture are very difficult.”

There was the additional problem, for other priests, he said, “so many suffering from guilt by association. As you say, many good priests feel very despondent as news keeps cropping up. But in Santa Rosa, as in many places, this news [about clerical sexual abuse] is about activities that took place 15, 20, 25 years ago.”

When reminded that Santa Rosans do have some current concerns, Levada said, “They do, I’m not discounting that at all. But these cases people are coming forward with are allegations that go back 20 years. They give the impression to people that this activity is seething all around. Well, I don’t think that’s the case. I think we need to be prudent, look at celibacy, make sure people are prepared for it. I think the key to priestly celibacy in my view is the life of prayer and intimacy with Our Lord that priests need to have. Every priest knows that but that falls away under weakness and situations.

“Straight out,” he said, “I understand why people would raise this, but to even discuss it effectively you would need to sit down in a calm discussion and look at all these various factors at once, and not simply point the finger at celibacy as if that’s an automatic remedy.”

Levada said he has visited Ziemann and his therapists. “There is a preliminary evaluation of the need for longer term therapy regarding sexual issues and boundary issues. They’ve been doing that for the past number of months.” Levada said that for Ziemann this is “a time of grieving,” one of “great sorrow. Having to resign from a diocese and ministry, as he has had to do, that will be with him for his lifetime, with regret and shame. Certainly he is contrite, and hopes in his own period of time to find what he should do with his life.”

Asked if at some point in the future, even if it were two or four years down the road, Ziemann might personally apologize to the diocese, the Levada replied, “I don’t see why that shouldn’t happen. I’ve already broached it with him, about writing a letter to be distributed to the whole diocese. I hope it might be forthcoming.”

Overall, he said, the diocese was “moving toward looking at a financial recovery plan, intermediate and long-term. I’m encouraged by the way people want to see the diocese move beyond the financial crisis and the great shock of the sexual misconduct.”

National Catholic Reporter, March 3, 2000