Archbishop Weakland

The Pillar [Washington DC]

August 23, 2022

By JD Flynn

Archbishop Rembert Weakland, formerly of Milwaukee, died Monday. He was 95 years old.

Weakland is widely regarded as one of the most ignominious Churchmen in American Catholic history.

The bishop was, in his day, the lion of the American Catholic left — he called for the ordination of women, excoriated the Church’s teaching on sexuality and contraception, and urged his priests to conduct “experiments” in living – urging them out of their parish rectories, and into apartments instead. He was regarded as a liturgical “innovator” par excellence. 

While he advocated for a broader social safety net for the poor, Weakland also lobbied to give abuse victims less time to file in court, and urged “flexibility” on legal tolerance for abortion. 

But while his record as a bishop and teacher of the faith might have otherwise been debated among Catholics, the details of his personal life, and his handling of sexual abuse, overshadowed anything else that might be said of him. 

He was publicly accused in 2002 of sexually assaulting a younger man in the 1980s, and of later paying him off with “hush money,” as he called it, taken from the coffers of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee – money which he paid back, years later, with earnings from his book sales. 

Weakland eventually apologized for the “scandal” of his conduct, but insisted things were consensual. While the man said he’d been raped by Weakland, the archbishop said he was “in love,” and he regarded the whole thing as “an affair.”

In fact, Weakland admitted in 2009 to having several relationships with men during his tenure as an archbishop, which he chalked up to “loneliness that became very strong.”

Beyond the personal allegation of sexual assault, Weakland has become associated with the worst excesses of the Church’s institutional cover-up of sexual abuse. 

Famously, the bishop is often remembered for a 1993 admission that he shredded reports on abusive priests after he had read them. For a bishop notorious for covering up abuse, the anecdote seems perfectly illustrious. As it happens, the bishop’s actual practice was strange, but not exactly what it sounds like – Weakland was not admitting to shredding the reports themselves, but the copies sent to his office – the files themselves were logged elsewhere.

But the broader picture – that Weakland was aggressive in his efforts to cover up sexual abuse allegation – is indisputable.

As Archbishop of Milwaukee, he frequently oversaw the transfer of sexually abusive priests between parishes, has been accused of castigating victims, and coercing them into signing settlement agreements which prevented abusers from seeing justice, and is known for suing abuse victims to recover archdiocesan court costs. 

“No bishop before or after Weakland has deployed such an aggressive tactic to intimidate and silence victims,” the advocacy group Nate’s Mission said Monday.

Once the global primate of the Benedictine order, his own monastery, where he had once been abbot, told Weakland in his retirement that he was not welcome there.

His name was removed from the chancery building in Milwaukee in 2019.

His funeral arrangements have not yet been announced. But I hope, sincerely, that you will join me in praying for Archbishop Weakland’s soul.

I hope also you’ll permit me to say that I pray another Weakland is not soon visited upon the Church in the U.S. 

And, actually, that’s a lot of what we’re doing here at The Pillar.

I have worked in the life of the Church my entire adult life. I have known saints in the sacred presbyterate and working in chanceries, and men of extraordinary virtue leading the Church as bishops.

I have also seen things done behind closed doors that prick my conscience.

And, reader, after 2018, it became clear to Ed and me that a mechanism of  journalistic public accountability is sorely needed in the life of the Church— that she suffers from its absence.

And not only a mechanism of journalist public accountability, but an informed mechanism, one with the capacity to understand how ecclesiastical administration and governance is supposed to work – how the Church prescribes its own function, and to see when things are deviating from those norms. 

We’re not out to play “gotcha” with “bad bishops.” We’re not out to “hurt the Church.” We don’t want to make a sensation or gin up scandal.

On the contrary, we love the Church, and we want to see both her reform and renewal. We want to raise our children to be saints, in the communion of our mother, the Church.

And we know that Weakland was able to make harmful financial and administrative decisions – like lifting $450k from the archdiocesan accounts to pay off an accuser  – because no one was watching with informed, independent eyes — and because few people with the right information felt they could trust either the secular or the Catholic media to get the story right.

We want to be the place that gets the story right. We think a bit of light shed at the beginning of a problem can prevent a great deal of darkness. That’s a big part of what we’re trying to do here — with sexual abuse and misconduct, with financial affairs at home and at the Vatican, with ecclesiastical governance in seminaries and chanceries and religious institutions. And yes, with the exercise of the munus docendi — the Church’s sacred call to teach the Gospel

It can feel, to be candid, a bit quixotic to aim daily for public ecclesiastical accountability long after the groundswell of frustration that arose in 2018— and often with little official or institutional result and less encouragement, at least in the short term. 

And a lot of our public accountability work has shifted to asking whether the solutions posed in the Church are actually working — is Vos estis doing its thing? Are financial reforms? Is the propaedeutic year, for that matter? Do we have technology accountability? What else do we need? 

It often happens that in a crisis, the Church offers some promised reform policy — but we think it matters that we keep watching that reform policy in action, that we see if it actually engenders reform. Those questions aren’t going away anytime soon.  

Still we ask a lot of you readers — we report on difficult stuff, and we try to do it soberly, and we ask you to endure a lot of looks under a lot of rocks. So thanks for that.

But we think public accountability matters. It brings in the light. It even, I sincerely believe, has a deterrent effect. It aims to help prevent the nest of complicated problems Milwaukee faced after Weakland — and the souls harmed in the process — and to do so out of love for the Church. 

We think that will pay dividends for the mission of the Gospel. And – if you’re reading this – you probably do too. But, as I tell you so often – doing it well depends on your subscription. So please consider it. I promise you, we’re not getting rich off this job — we probably could have done better financially staying at our pre-Pillar jobs. But we want to do more of the work that matters, because the tragic story of Archbishop Weakland has long and tragic consequences for the Church. 

Without public accountability, it becomes too easy for Churchmen, like all institutional leaders, everywhere – to excuse systematic malfeasance because of personal loyalty or ideological alliance. That’s how systematic negligence gets tolerated. 

All of us have sinned, of course. And a person is not defined by his sin. But the institutional harm that comes from institutionalizing tolerance, evasion, and even cover-up of serious and egregious sin — that’s not something that easily goes away. All of us know someone who’s been harmed by it.

Anyway, as I said, pray for Archbishop Weakland’s soul. And if you can, subscribe to our journalism. But if you have to pick one of those things, pray for Archbishop Weakland’s soul. 

With all that said, more news will surely come this week – with a consistory set for Saturday, lots will likely happen between now and then.

And in the meantime, please pray for us, and please be assured of our prayers. And – hey! – have a great day!