Weakland heading home, leaving complex legacy in Milwaukee

By Annysa Johnson
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
June 28, 2014

Former Archbishop Rembert Weakland walks away past the altar after his service where he gave his apology at Mater Christi Chapel at the Cousins Catholic Center on May 31, 2002. Weakland, who retired in 2002 in a spectacular fall from grace after acknowledging that he used $450,000 in church funds in a failed attempt to silence a former male lover, will be moving by Sept. 1 from his Milwaukee condo to the St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pa.

Retired Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland, a once-towering figure who diminished his legacy by his handling of the clergy sexual abuse crisis in southeastern Wisconsin and his own sex scandal, is returning in old age to the Benedictine abbey where he began his religious life more than 70 years ago.

Weakland, 87 and increasingly frail, has told friends he will be moving by Sept. 1 from his Milwaukee condo to the St. Vincent Archabbey, a community of monks in Latrobe, Pa., about 40 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.

A group of local priests is planning a farewell luncheon in July, an event that is already drawing criticism from abuse survivors.

"It's an opportunity to express our thanks and appreciation, and to say farewell and God bless you as you go to the next phase in your life," said Father David Cooper of St. Matthias Parish, the head of the local priests alliance that is organizing the send-off.

Peter Isely, Midwest director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said abuse victims don't share that esteem for Weakland.

"He's leaving behind here an enormous amount of unresolved and unhealed pain that he is unfortunately directly responsible for," said Isely.

Repeated efforts to reach Weakland at his home and by telephone were unsuccessful.

Twelve years after his retirement — with the archdiocese mired in a nearly 4-year-old bankruptcy, in large part because of Weakland's actions — the emeritus archbishop remains a controversial and divisive figure.

Weakland, who came to Milwaukee in 1977, had been an intellectual luminary and influential leader of the Benedictine Order under Pope Paul VI. He was consulted on liturgical changes at the highest levels in Rome. He championed the role of women in the church and led the drafting of the American bishops' pastoral letter on the economy, tenets of which are being echoed by Pope Francis nearly 30 years later.

But Weakland's influence waned as Pope John Paul II shifted the church to the right.

In Milwaukee, he initiated a wave of church closings and mergers — decisions seen by some as ruthless, by others as overdue and courageous. And near the end of his tenure in Milwaukee, he shepherded a radical remodeling of the interior of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, the episcopal see of the archdiocese.

He retired in 2002 in a spectacular fall from grace after acknowledging that he used $450,000 in church funds in a failed attempt to silence a former male lover who years later accused him of date rape.

Today, he is a central, if largely invisible, figure in the bankruptcy. He has admitted in depositions that he shredded sex abuse documents and moved sexually abusive priests from parish to parish without telling members of their histories. He suggests in his 2009 memoir, "A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church," that he understood in those days that sex with minors was a sin, but not necessarily a crime.

The book also recounts Weakland's coming to terms with his own homosexuality, in a church that sees homosexuality as "disordered."

Today, Weakland is virtually absent from the official life of the church. He does not appear alongside the other bishops on the archdiocese website. He was not among the bishops concelebrating Mass for the recent synod, or even included in the Eucharistic prayer for bishops and popes recited there.

Friends and supporters say the exile is, for the most part, self-imposed. Weakland withdrew from public ministry, they said, shortly after his resignation, when a group of parents threatened to pull their children from their confirmations at a large suburban parish after learning Weakland had been invited to take part.

"He did not want the sacraments to be disruptive," said Cooper. "He did not want to be a source of scandal and division."

In recent years, Weakland has spent his time reading, playing the piano, attending the symphony, traveling. Neighbors in his condo complex take him shopping, according to Cooper.

"Right now, he can take care of himself, but he's worried about getting too weak to do those things," said Cooper, explaining Weakland's decision to leave.

He had arranged to move to another monastery in 2009, St. Mary's Abbey in Morristown, N.J., but those plans fell through shortly after news accounts detailed the contents of his memoir. At the time, Weakland said he understood that his presence "might be a negative element" because the abbey is home to a boys college prep school.

The return to Latrobe will be a homecoming of sorts. St. Vincent's is the abbey where Weakland's mother sent him to begin his seminary studies in 1940 at the age of 13. The oldest Benedictine monastery in the United States, it offered him entrée into a world of power and privilege far removed from his hardscrabble childhood in rural Pennsylvania.

It is expected that he will live out the rest of his life there.

Here in Milwaukee, Weakland's influence on the church, both local and global, will likely be debated for years.

He was, depending on one's perspective, erudite or arrogant. An architect of progressive reform, or the embodiment of the "liberal excesses" wrought by Vatican II. An unwitting accomplice in a system that did not understand the psychosexual development of priests and the long-term effects of sex abuse on children, or a calculating criminal who placed the interests of the church over those of its victims.

"What I admire most is that he spoke with substance. What he had to say really came from a deep place," said Father Steven Avella, a Marquette University professor of history, whose second volume on the history of the local archdiocese, due out this year, will include a forward by Weakland.

"He was a man I was proud to work for," Avella said. "I would never, even with his troubles, turn my back on him."

Many abuse survivors believe Weakland owes them one courtesy before leaving Milwaukee. Critics, including survivors, have lobbied the archdiocese for years to strip Weakland's name and likeness from the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist downtown, including a bronze image in bas-relief that depicts Weakland shepherding small children.

"It is such a smack in the face," said Lynn Pilmaier, whose son, John, was molested by Father David Hanser at St. John Vianney School in Brookfield in 1977. Hanser was later defrocked.

Pilmaier says she tried repeatedly to meet with Weakland after learning of her son's abuse but was told by the prelate that she "could not be trusted." The experience, she says, has robbed her of her faith, and a church that she loved and worked for for much of her life.

"It meant so much to me, and they have made a mockery of it all," said Pilmaier, who believes Weakland should demand the removal of the bronze.

"Why doesn't he ask to have that removed?" she said. "He's not a person who could be trusted to protect those children around him."



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