Catholics express shock over lawyer’s arguments that a woman who sued Portland archdiocese for child support should have used birth control.
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.
(Article continues below this ad)
Taking a break?
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.”
Kuhn agreed, but said he brought up the lack of birth control for an entirely different reason — to allege that Collopy was trying to trap Uribe into a long-term relationship.
Robert Royal, president of the Faith & Reason Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., said the argument could have been framed from a Catholic perspective without losing any legal punch or resorting to being part of society’s “condom mania.”
“Lawyers like these working for the church disgust me,” Royal said. “It seems to me they could have achieved the same goal by saying that the woman in question was equally ‘responsible’ for having sex when she knew it could result in pregnancy.”
Among the archbishop’s defenders is William M. Shea, director for the Center for Religion, Ethics and Culture at the College of the Holy Cross. He said it would be impossible for Levada to review each legal document and if defense motion wasn’t approved by him, the mistake was not “earthshaking.”
“This is not a big deal,” Shea said. “It’s a slip. It shouldn’t have happened and once it is called to their attention it won’t again.”
But others saw a parallel between Levada’s motion and bare-knuckled legal arguments that have come to light during the church’s sex abuse scandal.
“This is another example of how bishops, by attempting to act legally before acting pastorally, twist the church teachings into a configuration that people don’t recognize,” said Tom Roberts, editor of the National Catholic Reporter, a liberal weekly newspaper. “These are the kind of contortions you get yourself into.”
Collopy’s suit against the Archdiocese of Portland was dropped in 1994 when the Denver Province of the Redemptorists, a religious order that ordained Uribe that same year, agreed to pay $215 a month in child support if Collopy stopped the legal action and signed a confidentiality agreement.
Last week, after having earlier battled Collopy in court when she asked for additional child support, the Redemptorists announced that they would provide more support to her son.