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Faithful Furious Over Tactic

Catholics express shock over lawyer's arguments that a woman who sued Portland archdiocese for child support should have used birth control.

August 03, 2005|William Lobdell | Times Staff Writer

In 1994, then-Archbishop of Portland William Levada offered a simple answer for why the archdiocese shouldn't have been ordered to pay the costs of raising a child fathered by a church worker at a Portland, Ore., parish.

In her relationship with Arturo Uribe, then a seminarian and now a Whittier priest, the child's mother had engaged "in unprotected intercourse ... when [she] should have known that could result in pregnancy," the church maintained in its answer to the lawsuit.

The legal proceeding got little attention at the time. And the fact that the church -- which considers birth control a sin -- seemed to be arguing that the woman should have protected herself from pregnancy provoked no comment. Until last month.

That's when Stephanie Collopy went back into court asking for additional child support. A Times article reported the church's earlier response. Now liberal and conservative Catholics around the country are decrying the archdiocese's legal strategy, saying it was counter to church teaching.

"On the face of it, [the argument] is simply appalling," said Michael Novak, a conservative Catholic theologian and author based in Washington, D.C.

That the "unprotected intercourse" argument was offered in Levada's name made it especially shocking to some Catholics. The former archbishop is now chief guardian of Catholic doctrine worldwide. The archbishop's new post as prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was last held by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- now Pope Benedict XVI.

William Donohue, president of the conservative Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights based in New York, said the legal language was "simply code for, 'What's wrong with you, honey, aren't you smart enough to make sure condoms were used?' "

And that, he notes, is completely counter to the church's teachings, which hold that using contraceptives is "intrinsically evil."

Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, a group that supports abortion rights, said Levada's defense was an example of how, "if something will cost the bishops money, they will use any argument whatsoever -- like any other corporate entity -- that will get them off the hook. It's a disgrace."

Many Catholics in Southern California also said they were taken back when they heard Levada's argument.

"I thought, 'What kind of [nonsense] is that?' " said Mary Jane McGraw of Oak Park, who runs an affiliate of the Boston-based Voice of the Faithful, a Catholic lay group.

She said she was most offended that archbishop blamed the woman entirely for the pregnancy.

"Once again, they want to lay it off on Eve," she said. "Nothing's changed."

Levada was on vacation and unavailable to comment on the controversial legal stance, but the attorney who came up with it, Richard J. Kuhn, said he wrote Levada's answer to the complaint strictly from a "common sense" legal perspective, without regard to Catholic teachings.

However, Kuhn, an outside attorney who was hired by the archdiocese to handle the case, questions whether Levada ever saw the document. "I doubt that the archbishop would have gotten a copy of the pleading," he said.

He said his best recollection about the proceeding was that he worked exclusively with the risk management department for the Archdiocese of Portland.

Kuhn said the defense he raised was probably based on his suspicion that Collopy got pregnant to keep Uribe out of the priesthood. "The archbishop shouldn't be criticized for something I did that didn't have anything to do with Catholic doctrine," Kuhn said. "It would be a different story if we sat down together and said, 'Let's do this.' "

The Portland archdiocese also doubts that Levada was closely involved. "We understand that the attorney handling the case did not speak with Archbishop Levada on this issue, and that the archbishop had no input," said Bud Bunce, the archdiocese's director of communication. But the fact that Levada may not have approved a legal argument filed under his name troubled some.

"Whether a bishop likes it or not, he has ultimate responsibility for a legal argument made on his behalf or upon behalf of his diocese," said Father Richard McBrien, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame. "Archbishop Levada would have -- or certainly should have -- known what his lawyers were arguing on his behalf."

Donohue, of the Catholic League, added, "At the very least, [there was] a certain degree of carelessness on the part of the archdiocese" for allowing the argument to go forward.

J. Michael Henningan, an attorney who represents the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, said he wasn't familiar with the Portland case. But "the positions the attorney takes become the positions of the clients," he said. "It is never OK for an attorney to take a position contrary to the beliefs and understanding of the client."

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