A Tangle of Sin, Forgiveness
Weakland's Role in Teens' Confirmation Canceled When Parents Object

By Lisa Sink and Dan Benson
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel [Brookfield WI]
March 5, 2004

A Brookfield Catholic church canceled plans to have retired Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland administer the sacrament of confirmation after some parishioners objected and threatened to protest at the church.

An associate pastor at St. John Vianney Catholic Church cited lingering concerns over a $450,000 settlement paid by the Milwaukee Catholic Archdiocese to a man who claimed Weakland had sexually assaulted him as the cause for the objections. Weakland later admitted an "inappropriate" but consensual sexual relationship with the man and asked the Vatican to speed up his retirement.

Father Leonard Van Vlaenderen addressed the controversy in a letter to parents of about 130 teenagers preparing for confirmation which he reprinted in the church bulletin last Sunday.

"We received complaints, threats of protests, e-mails - and one caller who was vile and rude with (parish staff)," Van Vlaenderen wrote. "You have no idea how troubled, saddened and disappointed I am over all of this.

"The Archbishop has publicly confessed his sin and has given us space to forgive him. . . . There's no question that some Church leadership has disappointed but this time, it is some of God's people who have done so."

Van Vlaenderen, who served as Weakland's secretary for more than a decade before Weakland retired in June 2002, wrote, "In light of this turn of events I think it best that I not be the confirming minister for this celebration."

He said a priest from Illinois will take his place.

While some parishioners on Friday echoed the pastor's call for forgiveness, others said parish leaders underestimated the strong opinions about Weakland's past actions.

In an interview, parish member David Ackmann said he believes Van Vlaenderen was personally hurt by the protest against Weakland.

"I'm afraid he's pouting a little bit," Ackmann said.

He said Weakland should be forgiven "as a person and a priest, but there are some repercussions from what happened," referring to revelations that Weakland had carried on an affair for some time with a younger man.

"His credibility was seriously affected by what happened. If there's a backlash, there's some feeling he deserves it," said Ackmann, who serves on the parish athletics board and the parish festival committee.

But parishioner Kathy Uy said she agrees with Van Vlaenderen and is disappointed Weakland is not going to participate.

Bible's forgiveness lesson cited

"I believe that we should be able to forgive others for their sins. The Bible tells us to let those without sin cast the first stone," said Uy, who is active as a parish school volunteer and other church activities.

She said the pastor's decision not to officiate was his way of "saying he's disappointed in what some members of our parish have said."

Parishioner Joanne Curro said Weakland's offer to administer the sacraments was a "wonderful thing."

"We've all made mistakes, and we should all forgive each other, just as Christ forgave us of our mistakes," she said.

But the chairman of a conservative Catholic organization that has been critical of Weakland said Friday that Weakland was wise to back out of the public ministry.

"If my kids were in that confirmation class, I would have reservations having him preside," said Al Szews, chairman of the Milwaukee chapter of Catholics United for the Faith.

"I think he probably did the right thing in taking himself out of that thing," Szews said. "It really is prudent of him, I think, to stay out of the public eye because I think he has pretty much exhausted his credibility in the Milwaukee area."

Parish called 'progressive'

Nonetheless, Szews said he was surprised about the reaction, saying that St. John's "has always been what some would call a 'progressive' parish."

"I would have thought that it was a parish that would have been much more sympathetic to Archbishop Weakland than perhaps other parishes in the archdiocese," Szews said.

Neither Van Vlaenderen nor Weakland were available for comment Friday.

Associate Pastor Gerald Dominiak said in an interview that he did not know how many people in the 2,400-family parish had complained, and that he had not talked directly to any of them.

"I was very saddened by it," Dominiak said. "I could not believe that Christians could act that way. How do we expect to be forgiven if we can't forgive?"

Dominiak said parishes usually request that an archbishop or bishop do the confirmation, at which teenagers are anointed and affirm the religion of their baptism.

Van Vlaenderen wrote that in spring 2003, when he requested that a bishop attend St. John's 2004 confirmation ceremony, Archbishop Timothy Dolan's secretary, Father Jerry Herda, said Dolan and Bishop Richard Sklba were unavailable, but Weakland could attend.

Van Vlaenderen wrote that he consulted with parish staff, who supported the idea, and Weakland agreed.

He wrote that he was uncertain Weakland would accept the invitation. The last time Weakland visited St. John Vianney's was at a listening session on clergy sexual abuse in May 2002, before allegations against the former archbishop had been made public.

Trustees: notify Weakland

After parents of confirmands objected to Weakland's role, the pastor said he met with parish trustees who agreed Weakland should be notified of the opposition.

The pastor said Weakland's "immediate response was he did not want his presence to detract from the celebration of the sacrament. He therefore withdrew."

Archdiocese spokeswoman Kathleen Hohl said Friday that while no records are kept of Weakland's ministry in retirement, "He has celebrated Mass" and is in "good standing.

He "remains a bishop in the Catholic church and is capable of administering the sacraments with his (Dolan's) approval," she said.


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