Crimes and Misdemeanors: Why a DUI Charge Isn’t Detouring a Rising Catholic Church Star

The new archbishop of San Francisco is contrite and popular -- and he was driving his mother home

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Michael Short / AP

Cordileone, the Roman Catholic archbishop-elect of San Francisco, has been arrested for investigation of driving under the influence early Saturday morning in San Diego, says a police spokesman. In July, Pope Benedict XVI selected the Cordileone to replace Archbishop George Niederauer, who is retiring in October. Cordileone was most recently bishop of Oakland and several years ago was an auxiliary bishop in San Diego.

Just days after his appointment as the next Archbishop of San Francisco in late July, the Rev. Salvitore Cordileone was in Napa Valley, leading a special mass for some of the nation’s most prominent conservative Catholic leaders.

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They had gathered in the wine country to contemplate “Catholics in the Next America” and their place in the debate over abortion, marriage, sex and other hot button issues. Cordileone, 56, had already become known for his instrumental role in passing Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot to end same-sex marriage in California. And now Cordileone, the current bishop of the neighboring Oakland Diocese, had been called to head more than half a million Catholics in the San Francisco area.

“He was a rock star there. There was no question about it,” recalled Frank Schubert, one of the Napa retreat’s attendees and the political strategist who managed California’s Proposition 8 campaign.

But that ascension was shaken over the weekend after Cordileone, driving his mother home after a late evening with friends, was stopped at a sobriety checkpoint in San Diego and found to be over the state’s legal blood alcohol level of 0.08. He was booked and released after posting $2,500 bail.

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Cordileone was contrite, saying in a statement, “I apologize for my error in judgment and feel shame for the disgrace I have brought upon the Church and myself. I will repay my debt to society and I ask forgiveness from my family and my friends and co-workers at the Diocese of Oakland and the Archdiocese of San Francisco.”

Will his apology be enough? So far, it appears to be.

“People realize he is a human being and that he made a mistake,” Schubert said. “That doesn’t diminish his voice as a Christian leader.”

“It could happen to anyone” was the message that Bill May, president of Catholics for the Common Good, heard during mass at his congregation in Marin County the next morning.

“He’s responded with such grace and humility,” said May, who also met Cordileone through the Proposition 8 campaign. “It’s something that shouldn’t happen, but it does. It doesn’t change who you are as a person.”

Even those who oppose his views haven’t mustered much effort beyond lobbing a few jabs. “Hey, it could’ve been worse,” quipped Queerty, an online gay news site. “He could’ve been ministering to gay and lesbian parishioners.”

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The DUI charge is not enough to force him to resign, most Catholic observers said, and the Vatican will likely remain quiet about the arrest. Cordileone is still scheduled to be installed as the Archbishop of San Francisco on Oct. 4, the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, as well as honored at a mass in Oakland the Sunday before. A week later, on Oct. 9, he will be arraigned in San Diego Superior Court.

A San Diego native, Cordileone was ordained as a priest in the Diocese of San Diego in 1982. It was also in San Diego that Cordileone, at that point an auxiliary bishop of San Diego, began his work on Proposition 8, reaching out to key backers and helping to raise $1.5 million in donations to fuel the campaign.

A year after the ballot’s passage in 2009, Cordileone was appointed the Bishop of Oakland. He has continued his work on marriage issues as the chairman of the subcommittee for the promotion and defense of marriage for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

On immigration, Cordileone, who speaks fluent Spanish, has taken a more liberal stance, calling for reform and supporting President Obama’s DREAM Act to allow young immigrants brought to the United States by their parents to avoid deportation.

“He will be judged on what he does as archbishop. As long as this doesn’t happen again, I don’t think it will have that big of an impact on his career,” said Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. “Five years from now, this will be ancient history.” He may yet make Cardinal.

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