A Church Leader's Unusual Confession

By Daniel Burke
Washington Post
June 13, 2009

In a forthcoming memoir, former Milwaukee archbishop Rembert Weakland reveals his sexual awakening as a gay man and his struggle to remain a prominent -- and celibate -- leader in a church that calls homosexuality "intrinsically disordered."

The progressive Catholic also opens up about leading the worldwide Benedictine Order, presiding at the funeral Mass of famed monk Thomas Merton, befriending Pope Paul VI, butting heads with Pope John Paul II and preparing an authoritative statement on Catholicism and the economy in the 1980s.

At times "A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church: Memoirs of a Catholic Archbishop," set to be published Monday, reads like a Horatio Alger novel. Weakland rises from poverty in Pennsylvania to study classical music at the illustrious Juilliard School in New York, then leads an international religious order and becomes witness to, and even a minor player in, some of the most consequential events in modern Catholicism.

But Catholics who were sexually abused by priests and other clergy during his 25 years atop the Milwaukee Archdiocese say Weakland, now 82, is less than candid about his role in the darkest episode of that history -- the transfer of sexually abusive priests from parish to parish while their crimes were covered up.

"Let's face it, most bishops are never characterized as trailblazers or envelope-pushers or courageous voices, but to some in the church that's exactly what Weakland was," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. "For a bishop of his education, stature, history and reputation to pass on the opportunity to really shed light and bring healing is even more hurtful."

Lionized by liberals as a champion of social justice and an advocate for women's rights in the church, Weakland has long polarized Catholics.

That polarization grew in 2002, when it was disclosed that the Archdiocese of Milwaukee had paid $450,000 to Paul Marcoux, who accused Weakland of sexually abusing him while Marcoux was in his 30s.

As if eager to unburden himself, Weakland devotes the first chapter of his memoir to describing his "infatuation" with Marcoux, his decision to resign soon after their relationship was revealed and the relief that he felt after decades of hiding his homosexuality.

"Throughout my adult life the question of my sexual orientation had been a question I did not want to face," Weakland writes. "Since my teens hiding it had become a way of life; I feared even admitting it to myself."

Through daily monastic prayers and living in community, Weakland maintained his commitment to celibacy, he writes. But in 1977, after leading the Benedictine Order for nearly a decade, Paul VI appointed him archbishop of Milwaukee. Weakland writes that he felt lonely and adrift, and sought companionship in Marcoux.

"Our sporadic relationship continued for some months while I kept closing my eyes to its conflict with my vow of celibacy, to the sinfulness of it all, and to the inevitable disillusionment," Weakland writes. Later, the archbishop sought friendship and intimate relationships with others, he writes, before recommitting to celibacy.

After threatening for years to go public about their relationship and the financial settlement, Marcoux did in 2002, while the clergy sexual abuse scandal was at its height.

Weakland denied there was abuse. He eventually came to view disclosure of the relationship as liberating.

"It may seem strange, but I felt a new freedom, a sense of being liberated for the first time," Weakland writes. "It had become public knowledge that my orientation was homosexual. There was nothing more to hide; no one could do anything more to me. I was free."

But victims of clergy sexual abuse in Milwaukee say Weakland is hiding what he knew about sexually abusive priests and the reasons he did not remove them from the priesthood. Weakland devotes several parts of his memoir to the sex abuse scandal, saying that he and others did not understand pedophilia and that the Vatican stalled attempts to defrock abusers.

"In handling these cases, I had accepted naively the common view that it was not necessary to worry about the effects on the youngsters: either they would not remember or would 'grow out of it,' " Weakland writes.

There are several active fraud cases in Wisconsin against Weakland and the Milwaukee archdiocese, said Peter Isely, SNAP's Midwest director, who has long accused Weakland of covering up priestly abuse.

Isely drew a connection between Weakland's affair with Marcoux and the way he handled cases of priests accused of molestation.

"If you're admitting that you were having a secret sex life," Isely said, "then of course you're going to be covering up for other people with sexual misconduct."


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