Bishop Accountability

Playing favorites

By Eileen McNamara
Boston Globe Staff
May 26, 2002

The politics of sexual misconduct in the Roman Catholic Church are on display in the case of Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland, demonstrating that neither the right nor the left has cornered the market on hypocrisy.

It took the Vatican less than 24 hours to expedite the resignation of the Milwaukee archbishop after he acknowledged paying $450,000 to a man who had accused him of sexual assault, an allegation the prelate denies.

The single victim in Milwaukee, if he is one, was an adult, unlike the scores of children who have accused priests in Boston of molestation and their archbishop of complicity for his serial cover-ups of their crimes. Why no comparably speedy action on the part of Pope John Paul II to accelerate the retirement of Cardinal Bernard F. Law? At age 70, he is only five years younger than Weakland, who has reached mandatory retirement age.

Consistency is the standard for the pope's pronouncements in matters of faith and morals, so Weakland's quick demise and Law's stubborn hold could not have anything to do with the fact that the former has been a thorn in the Vatican's side at least as long as the latter has been its reliable champion, could it?

Weakland was a lightning rod for criticism by conservative Catholics. His advocacy of a married clergy, the ordination of women, and a greater role for the laity undermined the teachings of the church. The Vatican forbade a Dominican-run university in Switzerland to grant Weakland an honorary degree after he invited women to a meeting to share their views on birth control and abortion. The pope cannot be sorry to see him go.

Law, by contrast, is the most conservative cardinal in the United States, with a record of enforcing orthodoxy, slapping down dissent, and marginalizing the laity while offering churches as staging areas for assaults on women's health clinics by such antiabortion extremists as Operation Rescue. The pope must be reluctant to lose him.

But the question of consistency is not the Vatican's alone. The Weakland resignation forces progressive Catholics to face the dilemma that confronted liberals in the cases of President Bill Clinton and former Republican senator Bob Packwood of Oregon. Clinton was impeached for his sexual misconduct with a White House intern and Packwood was forced to resign for sexual harassment.

The workplace misconduct for which both men were condemned is anathema to liberals, but it proved difficult for many to denounce either man because of their political support for gay rights, pay equity, reproductive rights, family leave, and other causes the left holds dear.

Weakland has been one of the highest-ranking champions of change in an increasingly conservative church hierarchy. He was a rare sign of hope for reform-minded Catholics, who now seem more saddened than angry at his precipitous fall from grace.

Their ambivalence can be explained, in part, by the ambiguous nature of the accusation against him. Paul Marcoux was 31 in 1979, a graduate student in theology, when he claims Weakland sexually assaulted him. The archbishop was 52. Marcoux did not bring his charges until 1997, and when he did Weakland denied them but paid him $450,000 to buy his silence. In a lame attempt at self-justification, Weakland said he had earned more than that amount in speaking fees that he had turned over to the archdiocese.

A 1980 letter from Weakland to Marcoux, released last week, reads like nothing so much as a missive of love and heartbreak. In it, Weakland tells Marcoux that he expects to be ridiculed by him for returning to his vow of celibacy and that he cannot supplement with church funds the $14,000 in personal funds he had given him to finance a video project.

Marcoux might be an assault victim or he might be a spurned lover. But Weakland, at the very least, put the protection of his privacy ahead of the needs of his flock and abused his power by either seducing or abusing a younger man susceptible to his power and influence.

He is now paying the price for his misjudgment. When will Law be held accountable for his?

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 5/26/2002.

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