Vatican official left abusive priest in pastor job

Associated Press/April 28, 2010

The pope's hand-picked replacement to oversee abuse cases at the Vatican did nothing to restrict a California priest after learning in 1995 that the priest had molested a 13-year-old boy a decade earlier.

Cardinal William Levada, then archbishop of San Francisco, said in a 2005 deposition obtained by The Associated Press that he did nothing and didn't contact police because he trusted the Rev. Milton Walsh would not re-offend and his predecessor handled the case adequately.

There were no known allegations of later abuse by the priest and a Vatican attorney says Levada acted appropriately under standards of the time.

When Levada learned of the abuse, Walsh had been pastor for six years at St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco, a parish of about 1,000 people. He remained there for two more years and was removed from active ministry in 2002, when U.S. bishops passed a "zero tolerance" policy on sex abuse and police started investigating.

Levada is now the highest-ranking American at the Vatican and head of the office that defrocks pedophile priests. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger held the post before he became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.

The Vatican's lawyer, Jeffrey Lena, says Levada handled the case properly by the era's norms, which have evolved significantly in recent years. The Holy See told bishops this month they should report abuse to police rather than keep cases quiet as had been the practice for decades.

"One thing the law teaches: it is fundamentally unfair to apply standards of conduct retroactively," Lena said. "And yet, even if one were to do so, it must be acknowledged there was no re-offense by the priest. So in this case, the old approach did work."

Levada's critics say it's an example of his disregard for abused children.

"When it comes right down to it, he absolutely never reached out in this clear-cut case. I think that's typical of Levada and that's perhaps why he's in the position he's in," said Diane Josephs, the attorney for Walsh's victim, Jay Seaman.

Levada's involvement with the San Francisco case began shortly after he left his post as archbishop of the Diocese of Portland, Ore., in the fall of 1995.

The victim's aunt wrote Levada to say Walsh molested her nephew in 1984 and complained he was still a minister at St. Mary's. She begged him not to "not let this man slip through the cracks," according to a copy of the Sept. 20, 1995, letter provided by Seaman's attorney.

Levada consulted his predecessor, Archbishop John Quinn, who encouraged Levada to speak with the priest, according to Levada's 2005 deposition to attorneys for alleged clergy abuse victims.

Walsh confirmed he fondled the boy's genitals when staying with the family but he stopped when the boy objected and returned to his own bed, Levada said.

Letters among the family, Quinn and Walsh show Seaman's parents - who were devout Catholics - decided not to go to the police, but instead sought spiritual guidance. Quinn told them he would make sure Walsh received therapy and with time, "the boy will forget."

Walsh soon returned to Rome, where he was studying for his doctorate in theology. He returned the following year and spent four years teaching seminary before being promoted to pastor of the San Francisco cathedral.

Quinn, now 81 and retired, declined to comment when reached at his home in Menlo Park.

Levada said he trusted Quinn's decision and found Walsh "completely frank and truthful."

"He was completely committed - had repented of that action and was completely committed to - to acting in a way that was entirely above reproach in his ministry going forward," Levada said in the deposition.

Lena, the Vatican lawyer, noted that an independent psychiatrist determined the priest was not a pedophile and there was no risk returning him to ministry.

In 1995, the recently extended statute of limitations in California could have covered Walsh's 1984 abuse if it had been reported to police. Walsh was eventually charged with two felony counts in 2002, but the charges were thrown out when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down California's law.

Walsh, now 58, continues to live "within the archdiocese," spokesman Maurice Healy said. Archdiocese officials did not return calls seeking an interview with him. An attorney who once represented Walsh did not return a call.

Levada now acknowledges that, in hindsight, he could have better handled allegations of sexual abuse when he was an archbishop and he now understands the limits of therapy.

The Rev. Thomas Doyle, a leading canon lawyer, said leaving abusive priests in the ministry is a risk too many U.S. bishops took.

"In the normal world, if you were a teacher and the superintendent found out one of the teachers was abusing children, do you think he'd leave him in the classroom?" Doyle said.

Seaman, now 39, is outraged by Levada's current role. As an altar boy, Seaman dreamed of becoming a priest and considered Walsh his spiritual mentor. He was molested the night of his 13th birthday party.

"It really ruined me," said Seaman, who works on a maintenance crew for the Golden Gate bridge. "I believe I'm still a Christian, but I don't go to church to find my religion."

Associated Press Writers Nicole Winfield in Vatican City, Brooke Donald in San Francisco and Greg Risling in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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