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Exclusive | Cardinal Levada: ‘We Should Hold Ourselves to a Higher Standard’

April 27, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As part of a series of reports from the Vatican, Cardinal William Levada, the head of the office that handles sex abuse claims, speaks to Margaret Warner in his first television interview about the scandal rocking the Catholic Church.

MARGARET WARNER: Cardinal Levada, thank you for having us.

CARDINAL WILLIAM LEVADA: You are welcome. It’s my pleasure. I’m a great fan of the NewsHour.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you. And I apologize for my voice. Last week the pope accepted the resignation of two prominent bishops in Europe. Another bishop tendered his resignation in this clergy sex abuse scandal. Are there going to be more?

CARDINAL WILLIAM LEVADA: I don’t think there is any way to predict. There have been several in the past, over the past 10 years let’s say for various reasons. There is no way of predicting that, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

MARGARET WARNER: Is there a new test really, a new standard for bishops to meet in the way they handle clergy sex abuse cases?

CARDINAL WILLIAM LEVADA: I think the standard is not new but it’s being applied more rigorously than in the past.

MARGARET WARNER: And were all these resignations voluntary?


MARGARET WARNER: Would this pope in these sorts of cases consider asking for resignations?


MARGARET WARNER: We’ve had people say to us that this is the worst crisis the church has faced in a couple hundred years. Do you see it that way?

CARDINAL WILLIAM LEVADA: It’s a big crisis. I think no one should try to diminish that. I think the crisis is particularly grave because priests are ordained to be good shepherds. We had Good Shepherd Sunday this last Sunday, and this is anything but being a good shepherd when you abuse children and you violate their innocence and their persons and they are too young to be able to respond on their own. So this is a crisis if you will that I think caught most of us by surprise. One bishop told me this isn’t the cruise I signed up for, but that’s in fact what has happened. I think the pope that was not his training and background I think he is the right man to be guiding the church at this time.

MARGARET WARNER: Now many people we’ve spoken to, certainly in the States, in the church, are surprised that you all here seem surprised by this new wave. That, after all the American church went through this eight years ago, painfully had to come to a new way of operating after many revelations. Why was the Vatican not more prepared? Why is this a surprise?

CARDINAL WILLIAM LEVADA: Well I think that there are two things involved in the current media attention. I think one is the situation in Ireland, where the report on the Archdiocese of Dublin triggered a lot of attention not only in Ireland but in Europe and then I think throughout the world. The second frankly, I think, is if I will say a certain media bias. I shouldn’t. I don’t want to scapegoat anybody or have a conspiracy theory but I do think that the American media in particular, the question has been driven by information given by the plaintiff’s attorneys who are looking for ways to involve the pope somehow in a court process or something like that, which are I think bound to be futile but nevertheless I think that has driven a fair amount of the media coverage if I may say so.

MARGARET WARNER: So do you think that some of the media are out to get the pope or the church?

CARDINAL WILLIAM LEVADA: Well you know I guess the media likes a good story but I think that by reasonable standards I think that they have not been fair in giving a balanced picture, a picture in context.

MARGARET WARNER: And what is that picture? What is that context that isn’t being reported?

CARDINAL WILLIAM LEVADA: I haven’t seen in the reporting much attention given to what the United States church has done. The bishops, it’s true through media attention, constant media attention in 2002, met and took very concrete action. When you see the programs that have been developed, the educational programs for parents, for children, for all church workers, including priests and teachers, there is a real success story that I personally we ought to be proud of and say this also can be a model. We’re not proud that we had to create it but it can be a model for public schools, Boy Scouts, some of these other groups where we’re seeing now, while they don’t get the media attention the church has in this –either we see, I see huge punitive damage case in Oregon was reported today for the Boy Scouts — so I think that’s one aspect of it.

MARGARET WARNER: So you don’t think it’s appropriate that people hold the church to a higher standard? There is more focus on the church?

CARDINAL WILLIAM LEVADA: That’s a fair question. I think we should hold ourselves to a higher standard in the sense that this is not something that one would have expected that a bishop or anybody in the church, parents none of us would have expected this but I think the causes we will see go back to changes in society that the church and priests were not prepared for, particularly changes involving how to be a celibate person in a time of the sexual revolution, that’s one of the causes I’d say.

MARGARET WARNER: Now the focus seems to be in this way very much, less on the individual cases and more on how the church hierarchy handled it. And the overall charge is that the church for decades seemed more concerned with protecting priests and the image of the church than in protecting children. Do you think that is a fair reading of it?

CARDINAL WILLIAM LEVADA: I think it misses another aspect that has to be taken into account again as an aspect that applies to the church and to society at large that it has been a learning process, and the learning process has not finished in society certainly. I was named a bishop in 1983 I can say to you at that time I had never heard of a case of priest abusing a child. But in what we’ve seen reported, it was going on. It was going on behind closed doors. Nobody was reporting it. And it took us a lot of time I think to understand how to deal with this and it took a lot of time to understand how much damage is done to victims, to children, by this kind of behavior.

MARGARET WARNER: You didn’t think that was apparent?


MARGARET WARNER: The damage that’s done to a young child

CARDINAL WILLIAM LEVADA: Of course it’s apparent, but how when you first hear of a case or you think those are isolated cases you don’t realize that there are going to be other cases being reported on a yearly or every six month basis and that’s what we had to learn about and learn how to deal with that in a more effective way.

MARGARET WARNER: Well you were an archbishop for 20 years, first in Portland, Ore., and then in San Francisco and I gather you did have to deal with cases.

CARDINAL WILLIAM LEVADA: Exactly. I had to deal with many cases. But it was learning by doing, I can tell you that.

MARGARET WARNER: So in retrospect do you have any regrets in the way you handled them? Do you think that you were part of a culture that was slow to recognize the damage that it did? And the need to move assertively to get children out of the reach of priests like this.

CARDINAL WILLIAM LEVADA: Well I’ve examined my own conscience with the help of the media and lawyers in Oregon and California, so I could honestly say that I certainly could have done some things better than I did.

MARGARET WARNER: Now the pope himself has also has been criticized for the way he handled cases as archbishop in Munich and as Cardinal Razinger when he had your job. Is he going to address those himself? Explain whatever he did or didn’t do and accept responsibility publicly?

CARDINAL WILLIAM LEVADA: Well that I can’t speak for him but I mean in my analysis of those two incidences that you bring up, I think his case in Munich, it does not strike me as unusual behavior for a bishop in those circumstances to let whoever is charge of that particular work and office in the archdioceses to make the decisions about a particular priest and I think that was the case in Munich.

With regard to the work of the pope here at the congregation, those criticisms I think were basically unfair criticisms. Those were cases that went back 20 an 30 years before, they were not dealing with children in harm’s way at the time and I don’t think that the pope can be rightly criticized in those cases.

MARGARET WARNER: Earlier this month you posted on the website a new guideline for bishops saying if there is suspected, credible suspected cases of abuse you must report them to the police. If that is what the law requires. Some would ask why it took so long to post that kind of guideline?

CARDINAL WILLIAM LEVADA: I would answer that to say that has been the guideline that I observed and that the bishops of the United States have observed certainly since the time of the charter in 2002 . But it’s been commented on why doesn’t the church have a rule about this? Are bishops required to do this? And it seemed to us good to put this in writing and at least put it as guidance for bishops.

MARGARET WARNER: People we’ve spoken to here including ordinary Catholics we’ve spoken to on the street and victims groups as well what they want to see is a kind of basically the opening of the files. They want to know how this office has handled the, what, some 3,000 cases that have come to your attention. How many times were the priests in fact guilty? How many times were priests transferred to another parish rather than completely relieved of their duties? Is that something this office would do?

CARDINAL WILLIAM LEVADA: Well the question about how many times priests were transferred is not something that we have here. It may be included in the file or it may not. That’s a part of information. What we deal with here is the guilt of priests for crimes committed and what punishment they should receive.

MARGARET WARNER: Would you ever publicize the names of those?

CARDINAL WILLIAM LEVADA: The names are public, I mean they are public … in the dioceses the priests are known, published by their bishops and we’re really here to assist the bishops who have the primary responsibility in this care, the safeguarding of children.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, just a couple of questions about the pope himself because you meet with him weekly. Is he aware of how this issue is being seen in the outside world?

CARDINAL WILLIAM LEVADA: I am sure he is. He’s writing a letter, a beautiful letter to the church in Ireland, which I’ve found personally very moving. He’s meeting with victims, that’s an example to bishops. There is nothing that helps bishops or priests learn about this problem better than meeting with the victims and hearing their stories

MARGARET WARNER: There are reports that the pope is going to make a general apology next June, a public apology at the conclusion of a Jubilee here. Are those accurate and if so what kind of apology?

CARDINAL WILLIAM LEVADA: You know I’m not a good prophet. The pope, he’s pope and I’m the head of this congregation I tell him what I’m doing but he doesn’t tell me everything he is going to do so whether he is going to do that or not we’ll have to wait and see, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

MARGARET WARNER: Meanwhile, almost every day there is this steady drip, drip of a new case and a new revelation. How great a danger do you see that if this pope, this Vatican doesn’t get out ahead of it, that it’s going to severely undermine the trust that people have, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, in the church?

CARDINAL WILLIAM LEVADA: Well I think that you’ve made a good, that’s a good point. I don’t … I don’t think there is any way that you can tell a victim when to come forward. Many of them are living with what happened to them for 20, 30, 40 years, so that’s a very individual thing. But, I think that the United States can rightly offer a model and I will look forward to helping my brother bishops around the world see what can be done if you take good concrete steps, put things out on the table, make sure that you’ve got a program to educate your priests and screen for any problem areas as you are admitting priests and have a good program for safe environment. I think those are key things that make our people feel secure. I think that’s happened in the United States, and it should be something that can be done throughout the church.

MARGARET WARNER: Cardinal Levada, thank you so much.

CARDINAL WILLIAM LEVADA: You are welcome Margaret. Nice to be with you. Nice to have you here in our office.