SAN FRANCISCO – Archbishop William Levada (search) of San Francisco is a champion of Roman Catholic orthodoxy who has raised the ire of victims' advocates for his handling of the clerical sex abuse crisis and has spoken out against same-sex marriage while leading the church in a city with a vibrant gay and lesbian community.
Levada, 68, was named Friday by Pope Benedict XVI (search) to be his successor as prefect of the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It's the first time an American has held the job, among the most powerful in the Vatican (search).
The congregation is responsible for policing and enforcing church doctrine. Among other things, it examines writings contradicting church teachings and crimes against faith, morality and the sacraments.
It also reviews all sex abuse claims against clergy, to see whether a priest should be forced out, given a church trial or found innocent.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said Levada had a dismal record on responding to the molestation crisis. Last year the founding chairman of a watchdog panel Levada formed to review claims against priests in San Francisco, resigned in protest.
James Jenkins, a clinical psychologist, accused local church leaders of "deception, manipulation and control" for blocking the release of their findings. "Regarding abuse in the San Francisco Archdiocese, Levada has been slow to act, harsh to victims and committed to secrecy," SNAP said in a statement Friday.
Levada also has been a leading voice in the church's opposition to gay marriage, saying it was not discriminatory to limit marriage to heterosexual couples. "Other remedies can be found to protect the valid rights of persons in non-marital unions," he said.
Last year, during the controversy over whether Catholic politicians should receive Holy Communion if they support abortion rights, Levada issued a nuanced statement that emphasized the importance of the abortion issue in evaluating lawmakers, but did not say directly whether he would deny the sacrament to a dissenting candidate.
After he met with Benedict on May 3, there was widespread speculation that Levada would take over as prefect.
"He has all the right credentials," the Rev. Jim Bretzke, co-chair of the University of San Francisco's theology department, said prior to Levada's appointment. "The conservatives respect him and even the liberals respect him."
The former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who served as prefect from 1981 until he was elected pope last month, was seen as an aggressive defender of church doctrine who censured several dissenting Catholic thinkers.
Levada, also viewed by many as a conservative, has honed his political skills while representing the church in California and Portland, Ore., and now nationally as chairman of the U.S. Conference of the Catholic Bishops' Committee on Doctrine.
While Portland's archbishop from 1986 to 1995, Levada led an unsuccessful effort to block the voter initiative that made Oregon the first state to legalize physician-assisted suicide.
In San Francisco, city officials threatened to cut funding unless Catholic Charities offered benefits to the domestic partners of city employees. Levada brokered a compromise that expanded health care even further: he said anyone in the household of a city employee — including children, parents, even roommates — should be covered, and thus managed to shift the spotlight from homosexuality to health care.
Calling the absence of universal health coverage "a national shame," he said at the time: "I am in favor of increasing benefits, especially health coverage, for anyone."
Levada has consistently refused to label himself as a conservative or liberal.
"I consider myself to be in the exact middle of the road as to where I should be as a bishop," he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1995. "I have a responsibility to uphold the teaching and tradition of the church. I would hope that I would be compassionate, interested in people's situations, their problems, their difficulties."
Levada was the only American on the seven-bishop editorial committee that produced the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, a guide to Catholic beliefs. He served as a staff member at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1976 to 1982, then held other positions in Sacramento and Los Angeles before moving to Portland. He became archbishop in San Francisco in 1995.
Levada does have powerful political connections, but "doesn't have an ambitious bone in his body," according to his cousin, the Rev. Richard Mangini, a parish priest in the Oakland Diocese. "He comes out of a mold of spirituality — humility, obedience and service to the church."