Utah Bishop Moves to San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO — Archbishop William Levada had two words of advice for his successor as Archbishop of San Francisco.

“Take courage,” he told his old high school friend, Salt Lake City Bishop George Niederauer.

Archbishop Niederauer is moving from a diocese where Mormonism and its family values are pervasive to a city now known as much for its homosexual culture as its streetcars.

Archbishop Niederauer, 69, will be installed Feb. 15, succeeding Archbishop Levada, who was appointed prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in May. Archbishop Levada’s influence with Pope Benedict XVI is credited with Archbishop Niederauer’s selection.

At his inaugural press conference Dec. 15, Archbishop Niederauer exhibited a warm, bantering persona, drawing belly laughs from some of the reporters. His style is in marked contrast to the somewhat introverted Archbishop Levada.

Like Archbishop Levada, Archbishop Niederauer is respected in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He helped write the bishops’ policy on dealing with the sexual abuse scandal and, in Salt Lake City, drew high marks for his handling of the clergy sexual abuse scandal, opening records to state prosecutors.

However, in a statement in an interview on his Utah diocesan website, he said, “Some who are seriously mistaken have named sexual orientation as the cause of the recent scandal regarding the sexual abuse of minors by priests.”

Asked about the remarks in light of a study commissioned by the U.S. bishops that found that 81% of those abused over a 52-year period were boys ages 11 and older, Archbishop Niederauer cited statements by the future Pope Benedict XVI. He noted that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said it was an insult to those with homosexual tendencies to assume they cannot be celibate, and that the Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly states that they are called to lead a chaste life.

“Perhaps a better way to phrase it is, the fact that one has a same-sex attraction does not automatically mean that one will molest children or minors, because the Church is saying that we have this expectation that people who have a same-sex attraction will lead a virtuous, celibate life,” Archbishop Niederauer said in a telephone conversation from Salt Lake City.

That said, Archbishop Niederauer acknowledged there is a connection with a homosexual lifestyle and an attraction to young boys.

“I know there’s a connection,” he said, “But, it’s important not to say there’s only one cause.”

Archbishop Niederauer said the issue is “affective maturity,” because “any Catholic priest’s identity must be centered in Christ the Priest.”

Of Life and Love

In an interview with the Register, Archbishop Niederauer said he would not yet address another scandal — San Francisco Catholic Charities’ facilitation of adoptions of children to homosexual couples — because he doesn’t know the policy or the details.

“I don’t mind taking the question after I’ve been there but I do mind taking it now,” he said.

However, in a split-second decision, Archbishop Niederauer promised to attend San Francisco’s Walk for Life West Coast on Jan. 21 after being told Archbishop Levada helped lead the walk along the city’s waterfront.

“If Archbishop Levada led it, I’m happy to lead it,” Archbishop Niederauer said.

Archbishop Niederauer served 11 years as bishop of Salt Lake City, a sparsely-populated diocese of 200,000 Catholics that encompasses the entire state of Utah. The Archdiocese of San Francisco ranges over three counties and includes 425,000 Catholics in 101 parishes who speak more than a dozen languages.

In Utah, which has a rapidly growing Spanish-speaking population, Archbishop Niederauer learned Spanish and visited striking mineworkers, many of them illegal aliens. He took a lead in fighting pornography and is president of the Utah Coalition Against Pornography. He is also listed as a founder of the Utah branch of the Blue Army, a group devoted to Our Lady of Fatima.

In introductory remarks, Archbishop Niederauer said he sees the role of bishop as “priest, prophet and shepherd.” He was immediately asked by reporters how he would reconcile the “conservative” positions of the Church with this “liberal” city.

“I want to get past labels,” Archbishop Niederauer said. “I think the ministry of Christ, the ministry of Christ in his Church is to meet men, women and children everywhere ... to teach the Good News which is Good News for right, left, and center.

“I understand there are issues,” Archbishop Niederauer said. “I have to say ... the Church teaches respect for life from its very beginnings to its very end. Marriage is a union of a man and a woman. That does not mean I do not care about and want to serve everyone the Church touches.”

‘A Healer’

San Francisco prides itself on its ethnic and cultural diversity but it has the smallest percentage of children in an urban area in the United States, and the Bay Area’s average housing price is more than $600,000. The San Francisco Chronicle employs a staff writer to cover the pornography industry for its lifestyle section, and nude runners are a staple of the world famous Bay-to-Breakers cross-town race.

Before moving to Salt Lake City, Archbishop Niederauer spent 27 years at St. John’s Seminary in southern California as an English teacher, spiritual director and rector. St. John’s Seminary was the focus of a Nov. 17, 2005, Los Angeles Times news story detailing allegedly open homosexual activity in the seminary, much of it in the 1980s and 1990s, which overlaps Archbishop Niederauer’s 1979-1994 tenure at the seminary. There has been no suggestion of impropriety connected to the archbishop.

But the new archbishop of San Francisco is so well liked in Utah that he was the commencement speaker at the University of Utah in May. His director of religious education for 10 years, Dan John, said the archbishop’s friendship was instrumental in his Mormon wife’s conversion to Catholicism, and he warned against slinging mud.

“He’s just a real and good, decent man,” John said.

Barbara Lee, editor of the Salt Lake diocesan newspaper, Intermountain Catholic, said, “I just hope the people of San Francisco open their hearts to him.

“He is so loving. I think he will be an element of caring and curing for the people of that archdiocese,” Lee said. “He’s a healing person.”

Valerie Schmalz writes

from San Francisco.