Flashback: the Shame of Rembert Weakland

By Charlie Sykes

November 13, 2008

Retired Archbishop Rembert Weakland admitted in a video deposition released Wednesday that he transferred priests with a history of sexual misconduct back into churches without alerting parishioners.

The former archbishop acknowledged that he did so because "no parish would have accepted a priest unless you could say that he has gone through the kind of psychological examination and that he's not a risk to the parish."


I'm reposting a column I wrote in 2002:

The shame of Rembert Weakland

Milwaukee archbishop tolerated and protected priestly sexual abuse

By Charles J. Sykes

Even years later, he's haunted by the casual greeting: "Hi, Greg."

He was lying in bed, the bed of a Catholic priest. The priest, Father Dennis Pecore, had gotten up and answered the knock at his door. He stood in the doorway in his bathrobe, talking with another priest, who had come to his room. The visitor could see the boy lying in the bed. "Hi, Greg," he said to the boy.

"Nothing else was said or asked of me," recalls Greg. He was 14 years old.

Greg is just one of hundreds of young men who were sexually abused by priests they trusted. But his case casts a shadow over the Milwaukee archdiocese and the legacy of Archbishop Rembert Weakland.

It should. Because Weakland's handling of this case stands as his most shameful moment.

By the mid-1980s, it was an open secret that Pecore was using Greg, a student at the Mother of Good Counsel School, as a sex toy. Greg says that other priests knew, as well as teachers and school officials. "My mother used to call up at the rectory and they would say that I was not there, and she would ride by and see my bike out front and know I was at the rectory."

In July 1984, one of the school's teachers had become so alarmed that he wrote a letter informing Archbishop Weakland that a priest at the school was taking young boys to his private bedroom, one at a time, suggesting that he was abusing the youngsters. He urged Weakland to do something "before it goes public."

Weakland's response: a threat. He wrote that "any libelous material found in your letter will be scrutinized carefully by our lawyers."

Frustrated, the teacher and two others continued to warn about Pecore's behavior. All three teachers were fired. In a lawsuit filed several years later, the three teachers say they were fired because they had tried to warn Weakland about what was happening at their school.

There is no evidence that Weakland took any other action in response to the warnings. Instead, the teachers later said, the church "conspired to silence this situation and to terminate" the whistleblowers.

In early 1987, Father Pecore was charged with sexual assault. He was later sentenced to a year in jail. (Several years later, after he was charged with molesting another boy, he was given a 12-year prison sentence.) The archdiocese also agreed to pay Greg and his family $595,000 in an out-of-court settlement.

Weakland insisted that the agreement be kept secret. "It was the archdiocese's idea to seal it," Greg later wrote a Milwaukee judge, "and when our family saw the clause in the agreement that it was to be sealed, we strongly objected."

Greg rejects the idea that the secrecy was designed to protect him: "If the archdiocese wanted to protect me, they would have not put me through all the hassles they did."

Weakland, however, wanted the last word. In a column published in the archdiocese's newspaper, the archbishop suggested that the adolescent victims were not so "innocent" after all. "Some of them," Weakland wrote at the time, "can be sexually very active and aggressive and often quite streetwise."

Even back in 1988, prosecutors were stunned by Weakland's victim-must-share-the-blame attitude. The head of Milwaukee's sensitive crimes unit said he was "disappointed and saddened" by Weakland's comments, noting that Milwaukee 's archbishop was either "failing or choosing to ignore the obvious power differential that exists between a priest and child."

Then-assistant district attorney (and now judge) John DiMotto said that he had never known a case where a child had enticed a priest.

To this day, Weakland's actions and words still carry the power to wound.

"To me, looking back on it now," says Greg, "how could he even suggest that? I was so young at the time. I couldn't make a decision like that."

He's still disgusted by the secrecy. "I wanted to tell my story to everyone," says Greg. "I wanted to get this out. I wasn't afraid to tell what happened to me. And I felt bad for the teachers who lost their job, the principal at the school, who had to leave because of this. I wanted this out in the open."

Greg believes the teachers fired by the archdiocese "were trying to protect me, trying to help me. The teachers who lost their jobs were 100% behind my family through this whole thing."

Milwaukee 's archbishop, however, has been a different story. Rembert Weakland has nothing to say about Greg or his case. The church's secrecy, tolerance and denial of sexual abuse has become a cancer on the church.

In Milwaukee, the archbishop carries into retirement the burden of his silence.


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