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Levada brought back accused priest with conditions

FILE - Archbishop William J. Levada answers questions after being named by Pope Benedict XVI as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for the Catholic Church, the highest post held by an American prelate, during a news conference in San Francisco, in this Friday, May 13, 2005 file photo. Levada said in an article posted on the Vatican's Web site that a lengthy trial for the Rev. Lawrence Murphy would have been 'useless' because the priest was dying by the time his diocese initiated a canonical trial. Levada was critical of The New York Times, which first published details of the decision last week. FILE - Archbishop William J. Levada answers questions after being named by Pope Benedict XVI as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for the Catholic Church, the highest post held by an American prelate, during a news conference in San Francisco, in this Friday, May 13, 2005 file photo. Levada said in an article posted on the Vatican's Web site that a lengthy trial for the Rev. Lawrence Murphy would have been "useless" because the priest was dying by the time his diocese initiated a canonical trial. Levada was critical of The New York Times, which first published details of the decision last week. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
By William McCall
Associated Press Writer / April 3, 2010

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PORTLAND, Ore.—A top Vatican official who now oversees the office that handles cases of alleged abuse by priests once returned an accused priest to administrative duty in Oregon on the condition that he be barred from direct contact with children or teenagers.

As archbishop in Portland from 1986 to 1995, Cardinal William Levada removed Father Joseph Baccellieri in 1992 after learning about 20-year-old complaints involving teenage boys but allowed him to return on a limited basis under close supervision in 1994.

The move had conditions, according to a letter released Saturday in defense of Levada. The archdiocese's clergy personnel director outlined a plan approved by Levada that prohibited Baccellieri from having contact with children or teenagers.

Other conditions included continuous counseling and therapy, regular reporting by his therapist to the archdiocese, close monitoring, limitations on ministry activities and restrictions on living outside a parish setting or under the supervision of other priests.

Levada explained his decision not to tell any parishioners in a 2006 deposition to attorneys handling dozens of lawsuits against the archdiocese claiming abuse by Oregon priests.

"It might give people the implication that if they are being told this, that I am suspecting that he -- he may be at risk -- he may be a risk to their children," Levada said during questioning by Kelly Clark, one of the attorneys for dozens of alleged victims.

"If I thought Father Baccellieri would be a risk to any child, I would never have reassigned him," Levada said.

Clark was critical of Levada during the deposition.

"Wouldn't you have some sort of a pastoral moral requirement to let individual parishioners make that determination for themselves?" Clark asked.

"I think it was prudent to act the way I did," Levada replied. "I stand on that -- on that judgment I made."

In the deposition, Levada insisted he had given complete information to the pastor of the parish about the history of Baccellieri and that was his standard practice. Documents provided by the archdiocese show Baccellieri was returned as a parochial vicar, an administrative, not pastoral post.

Levada also testified he did not recall whether the allegations against Father Baccellieri were ever reported to law enforcement. He did say that it was his policy at the archdiocese to comply with all requirements for reporting possible crimes, but the allegations happened 20 years before.

The deposition was released by Erin Olson, another attorney who represented Oregon abuse victims and was instrumental in getting Levada to testify.

Olson said she decided to release it because she was angry over Levada's defense of the way the Vatican handled a Wisconsin priest accused of molesting as many as 200 deaf boys.

Levada posted a statement on the Vatican Web site saying that Pope Benedict XVI should not be held responsible for a church decision in the 1990s not to defrock the Wisconsin priest.

Olson said Levada's comments "reflect an arrogance that is largely responsible for the current crisis."

Levada succeeded Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith after Ratzinger was elected pope in 2005. The Wisconsin case went to the Vatican office when Ratzinger was in charge.

After Olson released the transcript of the deposition late Friday, an attorney for Levada responded with a copy of the letter dated March 16, 1994, to Levada from Father Charles Lienert, then the clergy personnel director, outlining the conditions imposed on Baccellieri to return to duty.

Levada's attorney, Jeffrey Lena, noted the alleged abuse by Baccellieri had occurred before Levada arrived in Portland and that Levada pulled Baccellieri from service immediately.

"Only upon receipt of full assurance from qualified psychological counselors was the priest in question re-introduced into limited service, under supervision and with extensive limitations on his access to parishioners, after which he did not re-offend," Lena said in an e-mail.

Levada left Portland to become archbishop in San Francisco in 1995. Lena, who was part of the 2006 deposition, noted that Levada was in Portland for only about a year after Baccellieri returned to limited duty but "has always treated these matters with the utmost seriousness and responsibility."

In a 2004 release, the Archdiocese of Portland said the current archbishop, John Vlazny, asked Baccellieri in 2001 to study church law at Catholic University.

"In July of 2002, after the United States Catholic Bishops decided upon a policy of 'one strike and you're out,' Father Baccellieri, who was in ill health at the time, was retired," the release said.

The Portland archdiocese settled its sex abuse lawsuits for more than $50 million in 2007, after becoming the first Roman Catholic diocese in the nation to declare bankruptcy on the eve of trial for the first of those lawsuits in 2004.

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Associated Press Writer Nicole Winfield in Vatican City contributed to this report.