Weakland Moved Priests, Testimony Shows

By Tom Roberts
National Catholic Reporter

December 5, 2008

[the Weakland deposition from]

In what amounts to a rare inside look at how a church leader dealt with priests who molested children, retired Archbishop Rembert Weakland has testified that he moved such priests from one parish to another without alerting parishioners or notifying police.

Archbishop Rembert Weakland

In a deposition conducted June 5-6, the former head of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, said 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.”

Asked if he had ever made “any report of suspected sexual abuse between ’77 and 2002 to civil authorities,” he answered, “I can’t recall ever doing so personally.”

The deposition was taken in answer to an objection of the archdiocese to a pending trial of a suit brought by seven people who allege they were abused as children decades ago. The church contends that the trial, scheduled for early next summer, would be unfair because most of the principal figures accused of abuse are dead.

In other testimony, according to a report in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Wealkland, who resigned in 2001 after admitting he had made a $450,000 payment to an adult male who had accused him of sex abuse, also acknowledged that some incriminating mental records had been destroyed and that bishops spoke in code in correspondence discussing abusers who had been moved outside their dioceses.

Atty. Jeffrey Anderson of St. Paul, Minn., who filed the suit, released edited portions of the video recorded testimony in November. Those portions as well as the entire 320-page transcript of the two days of testimony can be found at

Anderson contends that the trial would be fair because Weakland’s testimony shows a cover up existed.

No matter how the courts rule on that issue, the case has provided an unusually frank look at how a major prelate handled the crisis in his archdiocese. “It is still very rare that bishops face questions under oath and the answers are made public,” said David Clohessy, national director of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) . “Every instance in which a deposition is exposed is important.”

Clohessy said he found especially disturbing Weakland’s acknowledgement that he had not contacted police about any of the accused abusers among his priests and the archbishop’s claim that the justice system itself had a hand in perpetuating the problem. Weakland recounted that one judge issued just probation for an accused priest and a district attorney said he would not prosecute if a priest was removed from his county. The archbishop also recalled that he had difficulty persuading officials in Rome to remove priests who had been accused.

“I think that’s just ludicrous,” said Clohessy. “He’s an archbishop with stunning powers and few limits.” Despite the justice system’s limits, he said, Weakland “had the power that all virtually all bishops possess and that virtually no bishops use – they can stand up in the pulpit of any church” and tell the congregation that accusations have been made against a priest and encourage anyone with information to come forward.

Clohessy and others also were highly critical of both Weakland and his successor, Archbishop Timothy Dolan after Weakland testified that the two had never discussed any of the cases when Dolan took over in August 2002.“It’s just painful to think of any bishop taking over a diocese and not even casually asking his predecessor, ‘Anything about sex abuse I should know? Any predator not publicly acknowledged yet? Any priest I should know about?”

Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff for the archdiocese, said even before Dolan’s arrival, the archdiocese had compiled a list of all those who had been accused, credibly or otherwise. When the crisis began to break anew after revelations in Boston in January 2002, he said the Milwaukee Archdiocese “quickly acknowledged that we had six men in active ministry that we had already removed” from ministry. He said the diocese already had convened an independent commission headed by the dean of the Marquette UniversityLaw School.

All of the information compiled was available for Dolan from his first day on the job, said Topczewski. He said Dolan also initiated his own investigation of any priests who had any hint of allegations against them and consulted the vicar for clergy, who was most responsible for dealing with charges against priests.

The stakes in the cases are high for the archdiocese. In a ruling last year, the Wisconsin Supreme Court said victims could sue the church on fraud charges if they were able to show the church knew about the abuse and deliberately covered it up. Subsequently, a county judge who will hear the case ruled that the church’s insurance carrier could not be held liable. So the church would have to pay any financial rewards that might result from the litigation. The Journal-Sentinel reported that the archdiocese’s chief financial officer, John Marek, said such a decision could result in bankruptcy for the church.

In May 2002, Weakland acknowledged making a settlement of $450,000 after being accused of sexually assaulting a man in 1982. The accuser, Paul Marcoux, said Weakland made sexual advances toward him after a dinner and evening of heavy drinking when Marcoux was in his early 30s and a graduate student at Marquette. Weakland, in acknowledging the settlement, said, “I have never abused anyone.”

Weakland had just turned 75 when the story broke. He was replaced by Dolan in a matter of months.

Tom Roberts is NCR editor at large and can be reached at


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