Pope Names New S.F. Archbishop

Times Staff Writers

Pope Benedict XVI has named the bishop of Salt Lake City, the Most Rev. George H. Niederauer, as the new Roman Catholic archbishop of San Francisco.

The 69-year-old Niederauer succeeds Archbishop William J. Levada, who was appointed by the pope earlier this year as prefect of the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and became the highest-ranking American in the Vatican. The pope headed the same office before he was elected pontiff.

In moving from Salt Lake City to San Francisco, Niederauer will leave one of the most socially conservative regions in the United States for one of the most liberal. But he said that he would be even-handed in carrying out his new duties as archbishop of San Francisco.


“I’m going to try to get past labels,” he said at a news conference Thursday at St. Mary’s Cathedral Conference Center here. “I’m going to proclaim the good news of the church for the right, left and center.” After 11 years in Salt Lake City, he is scheduled to be installed in his new post Feb. 15.

Niederauer’s San Francisco appointment underscored Levada’s new influence in Rome, one longtime church observer said. Father Thomas Reese, who has written books about American bishops, noted that Levada is also a member of the Congregation of Bishops, which recommends candidates for bishop to the pope. Levada and Niederauer are longtime friends and classmates, Reese said.

Niederauer, known for his sense of humor, quipped Thursday, “We’re friends but we’re not twins.”

Levada, Niederauer and Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, are seminary classmates.

“It’s a win-win for both Levada and Mahony,” Reese said.

Asked about the new Vatican guidelines that reinforce restrictions on gays entering the priesthood, such as remaining celibate for three years before starting seminary, Niederauer said a candidate’s sexual orientation was less important than his “affective maturity,” adding, “I’m not into labeling people.”

Like all Catholic bishops, he said he could not support same-sex marriage. “I have the conviction, as does the church, that marriage is a union between a man and a woman. It doesn’t mean that I don’t care about and want to serve everyone in San Francisco,” he said.


In Utah, however, Niederauer did not endorse the successful 2004 state constitutional amendment that prohibited same-sex marriages. Niederauer said that he believed existing state law already banned such unions and that a constitutional amendment was unnecessary.

Niederauer has been known for his outreach to other faiths, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, during his time in Salt Lake City, which is sometimes called the “Mormon Vatican.”

He also came to the defense of striking coal mine workers in Huntington, Utah, last year, many of them Latinos, after they were fired and locked out by the owners.

At one point, he visited the mine to offer support. “I drove two hours to come here and two hours back,” he told them. “But you sacrifice day after day. You are in my prayers, and you are in the prayers of the people,” he said.

The San Francisco Archdiocese includes 425,000 Catholics in 101 parishes and missions in San Francisco, Marin and San Mateo counties. By comparison, the Salt Lake City diocese reports an estimated 200,000 Catholics in 63 parishes and missions.

Like many other Catholic bishops, Niederauer has been confronted by the sex abuse scandal in the church. During Thursday’s news conference he was asked about a letter he had sent to an Orange County judge in 1986 seeking leniency for a priest, Andrew Christian Andersen, who had been convicted on 26 counts of felony child sexual abuse.


Earlier this year, Niederauer told The Times he regretted writing the letter and said he had written it as a friend who was not familiar with the details of the case. On Thursday, he told reporters here, “It was a mistake. It was a mistake in writing the letter. It was a different time.”

In a statement Thursday, Mahony said that Niederauer has a reputation as a deeply spiritual priest and bishop who has made himself available to fellow priests.

“The people of San Francisco will be enriched with his wonderful spirituality,” Mahony said.

Mahony called Niederauer an avid reader of both theological and contemporary literature who recited favorite passages. Niederauer recently wrote a book on spirituality, “Precious as Silver: Imagining Your Life with God.”

Born in Los Angeles in 1936, Niederauer attended St. Catherine’s Military Academy in Anaheim and St. Anthony’s High School in Long Beach before entering St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo. In 1962, he earned a bachelor of sacred theology degree from both the seminary and the Catholic University of America in Washington, and a master’s in English literature from Loyola University in Los Angeles. He was ordained a priest in Los Angeles that same year.

After serving in various parish assignments, he was appointed a professor of English at St. John’s College, then an undergraduate college associated with St. John’s Seminary. In 1966, he earned a doctorate in English literature from the University of Southern California. He was rector at St. John’s Seminary from 1987 to 1992.



Glionna reported from San Francisco and Stammer from Los Angeles.