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George H. Niederauer, San Francisco archbishop who pushed for same-sex marriage ban, dies at 80

George H. Niederauer, San Francisco archbishop who pushed for same-sex marriage ban, dies at 80
George H. Niederauer after being introduced as the eighth Archbishop of San Francisco in 2005. (Eris Risberg / Associated Press)

A San Francisco archbishop who pushed a divisive yet successful 2008 California ballot measure to ban same-sex marriage has died.

George H. Niederauer died Tuesday of lung cancer at a San Rafael care facility, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco announced. He was 80.

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Niederauer was regarded as a compassionate and tolerant leader when he was named archbishop after serving more than a decade as bishop of Salt Lake City, shifting from what then was one of the most conservative dioceses to the very epicenter of the gay rights movement.

Before arriving in 2005, Niederauer told the Los Angeles Times that he would be evenhanded in carrying out his new duties and was fully aware that he would be settling into a diocese — and a city — that was far more liberal than his prior congregation.

"I'm not into labeling people," he said. Although he was opposed to same-sex marriage, he explained, "It doesn't mean I don't care about and want to serve everyone in San Francisco."

But in 2008, when champions of a ballot measure that would ban same-sex marriage were looking for support and money, Niederauer put up his hand and offered both.

The archbishop declared his support for Proposition 8, reiterating the church's view that marriage was defined as a union between a man and a woman. He was also credited with reaching out to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, helping open a floodgate that resulted in more than $20 million in donations and an aggressive door-to-door campaign in support of the ballot measure. Some political observers said it tipped the election.

Although the ballot measure was approved by California voters, it was later overturned by a federal court in 2010. That ruling was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013.

The tone of the campaign grew so toxic that church leaders — the archbishop among them — were vilified by opponents. Vandals spray-painted slogans and a swastika on a Catholic church in the city's Castro district, a center of LGBTQ activism.

Niederauer said he was saddened by what he was witnessing.

"Tolerance, respect, and trust are always two-way streets," Niederauer said in a statement released ahead of the election, "and tolerance respect and trust often do not include agreement, or even approval.

"We need to be able to disagree without being disagreeable. We need to stop talking as if we are experts on the real motives of people with whom we have never even spoken. We need to stop hurling names like 'bigot' and 'pervert' at each other. And we need to stop it now."

Born June 14, 1936, in Los Angeles, Niederauer attended St. Anthony High School in Long Beach and earned a bachelor's degree from the Catholic University of America in Washington. He later earned a master's degree in English literature from Loyola University (now Loyola Marymount University) and a doctorate in English literature from USC.

He was ordained in 1962.

Through the years, he became known as a champion of the working American. When coal miners in Utah went on strike while he was in Salt Lake City, Niederauer drove through the night to offer his support to the strikers.

But there was controversy too.

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In 2005 he apologized for writing a letter to an Orange County judge urging that a priest be spared prison time after being convicted on 26 counts of felony child sexual abuse. Indeed, Father Andrew Christian Andersen avoided time behind bars, until he was arrested four years later on suspicion of sodomizing a 14-year-old boy.

Niederauer retired in 2012 and moved to Menlo Park, Calif., where he lived in a residence at St. Patrick's Seminary and University.

Twitter: @StephenMarble

UPDATES:

2:25 p.m.: This article has been updated with additional details.

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