Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Utah bishop selected to lead SF Catholics


George Niederauer was named archbishop of the San Francisco diocese. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
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Cautious optimism by gay Catholics and others greeted last Thursday's papal announcement it would install Salt Lake City Bishop George Niederauer as San Francisco's next archbishop.

The archdiocese serves 425,000 parishioners in San Francisco, Marin, and San Mateo counties. Niederauer will continue directing the Utah diocese until his installation February 15.

Niederauer's 20-year career in teaching and other religious duties honed his leadership of interfaith political and community efforts, and his tenure in Utah is seen by some as the progressive voice of a tight-knit denomination in the country's least secular city in a state that is dominated by the Mormon church.

He plans to "get past labels," and "re-evangelize those fallen away," in San Francisco, he told reporters last week during a press conference at St. Mary's Cathedral.

The LGBT Catholic group Dignity is taking a wait and see approach, and plans to open a dialogue with him after he settles in.

"I'm hoping he'll do good for us," said Dignity/San Francisco Co-chair Gino Ramos. "We need to give the guy a fair chance."

Niederauer, 69, attended an Anaheim Military Academy and graduated from Long Beach's St. Anthony High School in 1954. He attended one year at Stanford, but graduated from St. John's Seminary in Ventura in 1959.

After he earned a theology degree at Washington, D.C.'s Catholic University of America and a master's degree at Loyola, the Los Angeles diocese ordained him a priest in 1962 and four years later he earned his Ph.D. in English literature at the University of Southern California. He is one of few bishops with secular doctorates.

From 1972 to 1992, he served as spiritual director, English teacher, and rector at St. John's, and was named a monsignor in 1984 by the pope.

From 1992 to 1994, Niederauer resided in West Hollywood's sizably gay St. Victor's Parish while he co-directed the Cardinal Manning House of Prayer near Griffith Park.

"Gay men never felt ill at ease dealing with him," said Monsignor George Parnassus, a St. Victor pastor emeritus. "We would be invited to their homes in West Hollywood."

"[He] became friends with a good number of them," said Parnassus, who, with gay and straight St. Victor's parishioners, attended Niederauer's Utah installation ceremony and recalled the new bishop finding their post-event dinner party and eating off everyone's plates. "He's at home with us."

He was ordained bishop of Salt Lake City in 1995. In 1996, when the Utah legislature banned gay-straight alliances in high schools, Niederauer helped form a coalition of religious leaders opposing the ban, which has since been overturned.

He joined other clergy leaders in publicly opposing a 2004 Utah ballot initiative that constitutionally banned same-sex marriage, if only because that law already existed, he said.

The Utah AIDS Foundation found parochial sex education classes, under direct diocesan supervision, more receptive to discussion of HIV risk factors than the public schools, which emphasized abstinence-only in its curriculum.

"We feel good about our relations with the Catholic community services, which reports directly to the bishop," said Stan Penfold, executive director of the Utah AIDS Foundation.

Niederauer has said a priest candidate's sexual orientation is less important than his maturity and that gay men committed to celibacy can make effective ministers. Those comments stand in contrast to the Vatican, which recently instructed seminary spiritual directors to dissuade gay men from the priesthood.

Niederauer told the Los Angeles Times last year that he regretted his 1986 letter urging a judge to give lenience to a former Orange County priest and friend, ultimately convicted of 26 counts of felony child sex abuse and, after violating probation, sentenced to six years in prison. Last week he called the letter a mistake.

"That impressed me," said pastor Craig Forner of St. Kevin's Church in Bernal Heights. Forner, who called Niederauer broad-minded, praised his "grasp of reality," and anticipates Niederauer's interaction with LGBTs. "Very few bishops are that open. I hope we would give him credit for what he learned. A man willing to admit he made a mistake."

"He's coming here with eyes wide open," said Forner.

"What I don't want is some kind of link between being homosexual and being a molester of minors," Niederauer told the National Catholic Register in 2002. "Child abuse is not a heterosexual or homosexual problem; it is an illness and a disorder."

Two sexual abuse survivors presented the new archbishop with a letter at the December 15 press conference, asking him to suspend or at least release the names of accused priests.

"One of the things he can do is go to the parishes and remove them from children," said Joe Piscitelli, who said he was abused by a priest.

Since the priest child abuse scandal rocked the church in 2003, beginning with allegations in Boston and spreading across the county, the San Francisco Archdiocese has settled 84 lawsuits for more than $63 million and faces 15 more suits, according to the San Francisco Chronicle .

Apostolic Administrator John Wester has filled in at the San Francisco Archdiocese since August, when Pope Benedict XVI appointed former Archbishop William Levada, Niederauer's seminary classmate, to head the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog arm and help make diocesan appointments.

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