California Catholic Conference – a history


Bishop John Cummins was the first executive director of the California Catholic Conference — from 1971 (or 1972, depending on the source) to 1977. In 1974 he was named as auxiliary bishop of Sacramento and continued as executive director of the conference until 1977, when he was named bishop of Oakland.

Bishop Cummins was instrumental in passing two pieces of legislation in the mid-1970s that affected the moral life of California and eventually the nation.

The first was AB 489, known as the Consenting Adult Sex Bill. After the election in 1974 of Jerry Brown to succeed Ronald Reagan as governor of California, Assemblyman Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) knew he at last had a chance of getting a governor to sign legislation that would do away with what one state senator’s memoirs called “old-fashioned laws that criminalized behavior between consenting adults.” Assemblyman Brown knew AB 489 would be a priority for his gay San Francisco constituents. The vote taken in 1975 was not close in the Assembly (where it was adopted with votes to spare), but passed in the state Senate only because the lieutenant governor broke a 20-20 tie.

Willie Brown

What was the Catholic conference’s role?  Fourteen years later, Bishop Cummins told of the part he played in the Consenting Adults battle. On June 5, 1999, Cummins was meeting with a group organized by Father Jim Schexnayder at Our Lady of Lourdes parish in the Oakland diocese. Bishop Cummins, say eyewitnesses at the meeting, explained to the group how he and the CCC worked behind the scenes to pass AB 489.

According to Wikipedia, the Consenting Adult Sex Bill, which went into effect in January 1976, “made gay bathhouses and the sex that took place within them legal for the first time.” In 1984, because of the AIDS epidemic associated with the bathhouses, the San Francisco Health Department tried to close the baths but was unsuccessful.

“This could be the greatest victory of the movement,” said one gay activist quoted by the Gay News Alliance.

The second piece of legislation in which the bishops played an important role — and particularly Bishop Cummins as head of the CCC — involved euthanasia.

The euthanasia movement in the U.S. grew from roots established in the 1930s. Dr. Eugene Kennedy, who led the Euthanasia Society of America, advocated putting to death “the utterly unfit” among young retarded children; he was honored by the University of Heidelberg, Germany, in the summer of 1936. Even though the movement had attracted celebrities like Somerset Maugham, Margaret Sanger, and Robert Frost, the number of Society members remained at about the 500 mark for decades.


In 1967, a major breakthrough occurred. At a meeting of the Euthanasia Society, a document was proposed called the “Living Will.” In a subsequent law journal article, a proponent described the Living Will as “limited in its initial creation to adult patients who are capable of exercising their will.” (Emphasis added.)

Commentaries on the Living Will saw it as protective of patients’ rights and innocuous. Others saw a red flag. The Catholic Church and pro-life groups stood steadfast against such legislation. But read what happened with Living Will legislation in California from an article by Rita Marker in the Human Life Review (1987):

“Euthanasia opponents, present to testify on Tuesday, August 17, 1976 (the final day of debate on the measure) were stunned when Assemblyman Barry Keene, author of the legislation, announced he had received a letter from the California Catholic Conference stating a change in its position. Until then, the California Catholic Conference had opposed the bill. Notification of the change from opposition to neutrality was given in a letter from Bishop John S. Cummins, then-executive director of the Catholic Conference, to Assemblyman Keene, in which Cummins wrote:


“’The California Catholic Conference is modifying its position on AB 3060 from OPPOSITION to WATCH, and we will not offer any opposition next Tuesday.

“’We cannot commit ourselves to supporting the bill. Too many of our people still have problems about judicial definitions and the effectiveness of legislation in this whole matter.

“’On my own behalf, I wish to express appreciation for your sensitivity of the questions we had. I realize too, the diversity of concern with which you had to deal. Your care and seriousness have very much appreciated and have been very significant factors in the removal of opposition on the part of our people.

“’Thank you for the consideration. I hope we shall be in similar contact on future issues. I hope too, that we shall be able to help with your difficult and important endeavors.’


“The Catholic Conference withdrawal of opposition effectively opened the door for the measure’s passage – the bill passed the California State Assembly on the day the Cummins letter was read aloud by Keene.

“Commenting later on the legislation, Bishop Cummins said he found ‘nothing objectionable with the bill as written,’ although he admitted he did ‘not know what the ramifications of such a bill would be.’

“…Removal of Catholic Conference opposition in California led to more favorable consideration of Living Will legislation in other states as well and, within a year, seven additional states (Nevada, Oregon, North Carolina, Texas, Arkansas, New Mexico, and Idaho) had enacted ‘right-to-die’ laws.

“The Cummins letter, used during the close debate on Oregon’s Living Will legislation, was instrumental in passage of that state’s Living Will law in early 1977.”


Bishop Cummins became bishop of Oakland in 1977, where he served until 2003. He was succeeded as the Catholic Conference executive director by Monsignor John Dickie from the San Diego diocese, who held the position until 1982.  Monsignor William Levada, who had just finished a stint at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, took over the leadership of the conference in 1982, until March of 1983, when he was appointed auxiliary bishop in the Los Angeles archdiocese.

From 1984 until 1991, Father William Wood, S.J., was the executive director of the California Catholic Conference. Father Wood had grown up and been ordained in the Los Angeles area, but he had taught at the University of San Francisco and became rector of Bellarmine, a Jesuit college prep school in San Jose. Father Wood founded the Santa Clara Valley Coalition Against Hunger, which over time evolved into the Second Harvest Food Bank. He participated in the California Food Policy Project, funded by the California Council for the Humanities in Public Policy.


In 1987 the following letter from a laywoman, Joan Patton, appeared in the San Diego diocesan paper: “For anyone who stayed up half the night to watch Ted Kopel’s recent special on AIDS, it should be apparent why the pro-family, pro-life workers in the Catholic Church in California have problems getting supportive legislation out of Sacramento. When the subject of morality came up, Ted turned to Fr. Bill Wood, Executive Director of the California Catholic Conference for a comment. Rather than taking this opportunity to state the Church’s teaching on sodomy, promiscuity, and perversion, he made a political statement against military spending and aid to the Contras, and encouraged support for the Bishops’ Pastoral on the Economy. What an embarrassment to the laity. When he did finally mention chastity, it was almost as an afterthought and the damage was already done.”


At approximately the same time, in September, 1987, state Senator Gary Hart (D-Santa Barbara) got a bill through the legislature (SB 136) mandating every child in grades 7-12 attend a state-run program on AIDS education. As with most AIDS education programs of the time, this curriculum was to emphasize condom use and safe sex. Father Wood, on behalf of the California bishops, endorsed the Hart bill. Governor George Deukmejian vetoed the bill, but it eventually passed as SB 2840, which was modified to allow individual school districts to choose their own AIDS curriculum.

Sasha Alyson is the largest independent publisher of gay and lesbian books, including children’s books that depict families with homosexual parents. Alyson also started a weekly gay paper in Boston and Alyson Adventures, which offered outdoor and adventure travel for gay people. In 1988 he edited You Can Do Something About AIDS, in which Father Wood wrote the chapter “What Can Clergy Do About AIDS?” A sample from the chapter: “High among my priorities is working for legislation that will effectively do something about AIDS….”


On December 5, 1988 there was a special election to fill an Assembly seat in San Diego. Lucy Killea, a San Diego city councilwoman, a Catholic, and the Democrat in a Democratic-leaning district, ran TV and newspaper ads proclaiming herself  “pro-choice.” Bishop Leo Maher of San Diego wrote Killea a letter in late November telling her she could not receive Communion because her proclamations put her “in complete contradiction to the moral teachings of the Catholic Church.”

Killea went on to win the election. Sometime between the election and Maher’s resignation as bishop (he turned 75 the following July), Father Wood planned to bring up the propriety of Maher’s decision at a California Catholic Conference meeting. Maher confided in a friend that he thought only one or two other bishops would support him. But he was incensed that Wood would make the move as executive director. “It’s not going to happen,” Maher told the friend. “Number one, only bishops have the right to put measures on the agenda; number two, and besides what I did was the right thing to do.”


Monsignor E. James Petersen succeeded Father Wood as executive director in 1991 and served until 1997. He had gotten to know Cardinal Roger Mahony, as they both served as priests in the diocese of Fresno. Together they owned a house in the Sierra Nevada mountains.




Next week: Part 3: a layman takes over

To read previous parts of this series, click below:

Part 1: the years before







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  1. Other than as a secretary or other pair of hands to assist with office work, no LAY Person should have any role in any Bishop’s Conference — especially in the decision-making process or to publicly speak on behalf of the Bishops.

    Code of Canon Law allows for Lay people to have their own organizations.

    Mixing the roles of Bishops (and their Priests) with that of the Laity is part of the problem of today.

    Many Bishops (and their Priests) do not do their real job of teaching — teaching all literate to read and study the Bible and the CCC in entirety, and teaching those obstinate in grave sin by enforcing Canons 915 & 1399, and 1 Cor 5:11-13 (public excommunication ab homine) — which corrects Sacrilege, Scandal, Hersey, Schism and confusion for all.

    Bishops and Priests should never publicly teach anything that is not in the Bible or the CCC. Personal opinions cause confusion and leads to Catholics ignoring them completely, even on many issues where the Bishops are correctly teaching from the CCC. (CCC 2245).

    If Bishops followed the teaching example set by St. Paul, Catholics would know their Faith accurately and completely, and could take it into the public square.

    It is the role of the LAITY NOT the BISHOPS to be involved in politics.
    CCC: “898 By reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will. . . . It pertains to them in a special way so to illuminate and order all temporal things with which they are closely associated that these may always be effected and grow according to Christ and maybe to the glory of the Creator and Redeemer.”
    CCC: “899 The initiative of lay Christians is necessary especially when the matter involves discovering or inventing the means for permeating social, political, and economic realities with the demands of Christian doctrine and life. This initiative is a normal element of the life of the Church:
    Lay believers are in the front line of Church life; for them the Church is the animating principle of human society. Therefore, they in particular ought to have an ever-clearer consciousness not only of belonging to the Church, but of being the Church, that is to say, the community of the faithful on earth under the leadership of the Pope, the common Head, and of the bishops in communion with him. They are the Church.”

    When the Bishops (and their Priests) abandon their own prime responsibilities, the Lay people are not properly educated. Then the Bishops continue the confusion by the Bishops getting involved in politics — when it has nothing to do with the Saving of Souls for eternity, and on issues that are not according to the Gospel. (CCC 2246)

    • “THANK YOU” Mike, I couldn’t agree more. This should have been said long ago. Right after the opening prayer to the Bishops Convention, this should be read by all in attendance.

  2. “Together they owned a house in the Sierra Nevada mountains.” –
    And just where did Fr. Petersen and Cardinal Mahony get the money for this???
    There needs to be an investigation on everything that Cdl Mahony has done from the time he was ordained to today.

    • Are Priests supposed to be poor people. Many priests own their own homes or vacation homes. Among those I know, none are extravegant – a small cabin, a condo, a retirement home. Since they are often forced to live in a dorm most of their lives, they should have a little money to buy a house for vacations and retirement. Those who are smart buy the house and then rent it out for twenty years and let the renters pay the mortgage for them.

      • Of course Bob One you completely miss the point of this article — how Catholic teaching has been undermined by the clergy.

      • “Since they are often forced to live in a dorm most of their lives”—- What the heck are you talking about? I know dozens and dozens of priests and none, absolutely zero, of them live in dorms. Parishes typically own a home for the pastor, and bishops have VERY nice homes in VERY nice parts of the city.

  3. What an incredible story. Why do Catholics put up with the anti-Catholic actions of the California Catholic Conference? I see where the bishops collectively hide behind this totally self-serving organization

    • I somehow did not finish my comment. It shoud be “I see where the bishops collectively hide behind this totally self-serving organization which is based on the goals of the anti-life Democrat Party”.

  4. Like many priests of his generation, Cardinal Mahony comes from a family with money. It doesn’t surprise me at all that he would have disposable income to buy a mountain cabin. Note how his classmates Cardinal Levada and Archbishop Niederaur were able to buy a house in Long Beach, and I’m guessing not in the gang-ridden part of town.

    Now whether this is living simply as JP2 requested of diocesan priests is an open question…

    FrMichael… a parish priest who expects to retire to a back room of a rectory.

    • Keep the faith padre… your eternal home might just be nicer than that of the prelates you mention.

    • When he was a Priest, didn’t Cdl. Mahony take a vow of poverty, like most Priests?
      Does this vow disappear for Bishops and Cardinals ?

      • Mbûkû Kanyau Mbithûka says:

        Diocesan priests do not take a Vow of poverty. Only religious priests do, and not all of them.

        All priests however take a vow of obedience to the Church and her Bishops, including our Holy Father.

  5. California Catholic has done an extraordinary job of exposing the 41 years of the vile Catholic Conference, CCC, aka, “the bishops’ lobby.”

    Few know that each bishop is expected to fork over huge sums of money to provide exorbitant salaries for staff and elegant offices for the CCC.

    Now that there is a Super-majority of extreme Left-wing, pro-abort DEMs controlling the CA Legislature, there is no reason to have a Catholic bishop lobby, except possibly to embarrass the DEMS at every chance. That, however, is not likely, since the CCC and most bishops fawn over the Left.

    Just as Cardinal Mahony provided cover for the abusive priests, the CCC provides cover-up for the grossly immoral legislators who promote the killing of innocent unborn human beings.

    A good bishop would immediately withdraw all support for the CCC.

    • John you are right that each Diocese gets its money from us, the Faithful, through our Sunday offering.

      Each Diocese Bishop assesses each Parish for money for their State Bishop’s Conference, and also additionally for the USCCB – to pay for exhorbitant salaries, etc.

      We should not be forced into donating money for these organizations. Where the Bishops spend all of our Sunday and other donations should be fully and publically disclosed in every Parish bulletin.

      I want to support my Parish and my Diocese, and those charitable organizations that I personally choose – but these FORCED assessments have got to go.

    • State Bishops’ Conferences are not necessary, and are a waste of donation money.

  6. Your investigative report is riveting. Our church remains blessed by God – it is with a heavy heart that I read your reports – May The Lord continue to bless the work of your hands.
    My prayers, sacrifices and penance are offered with love for The Lord to forgive us and keep loving His Hospital for sinners:-)

  7. Can you please provide the LINK to Rita Marker’s 1987 article re “Living Wills” cited in the article? Thank you.

    The editor replies: Unfortunately, we do not have a direct link to the 1987 article. We suggest that you contact Human Life Review to see if it might be available in their archives. There is a specific contact for back issues here:

    • If any Bishop neglects his own job, and allows any Bishop’s Conference to take his place — he will have to answer to God.

      Bishops each have a huge obligation for everything ‘Catholic’ that happens within his own Diocese. He cannot abdicate his own responsibility to others unless he resigns from his Diocese position.

      We must assist our Bishop by letting him know when abuses of any type take place.

      No Bishop’s Conference has any teaching authority within the Catholic Church as instituted by Jesus. Jesus did not give His Apostles (Bishops) the authority to be involved in secular politics.

      Bishops must teach Faith and Morals, including excommunicating when absolutely necessary to avoid confusion, heresy, schism and scandal.

      The Laity has the responsibility to carry forward their moral beliefs into the public square.

  8. I wish you had used better sources. I’m not questioning the truth of the statements but the few links you have provided are not to credible sources.

  9. Thanks for the chapter 2 History of CCC. For another eye opening article go to The Guardian (UK) “Papal resignation linked to inquiry into ‘Vatican gay officials,’ says paper.”

    More than disturbing that Cardinal Mahony insists on going and participating in the conclave.

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