On Thursday, May 23, Richard Ostling of the Associated Press called to ask what I made of the "Weakland story." What Weakland story? Ostling then e-mailed the first accounts. On ABC’s "Good Morning America," a man had claimed to have been sexually assaulted by the Milwaukee archbishop, something that Weakland subsequently denied. A letter written by the archbishop in 1980 indicated that Weakland, then in his early fifties, was withdrawing from a close and troubled relationship with Paul Marcoux, then in his early thirties. Seventeen years and several careers later, Marcoux demanded, and in 1998 obtained, from Weakland and the Milwaukee archdiocese, a "confidential" civil settlement of $450,000 to cease all litigation regarding matters in which the sexual was thrown in with breach of contract, "reckless hiring," etc., etc. Marcoux agreed to refrain from all publicity about these matters and return all related letters and documents. As even the ABC reporter noted, the transaction had the appearance of blackmail.

I found all these revelations incredible; at the same time, I felt a terrible sadness. Early Thursday afternoon, I sent Ostling this comment:

"It seems that every day Catholics are asked to make up their minds on matters about which we have only small glimpses of the truth. This is the case today with the story about Rembert Weakland.

"I have long admired Archbishop Weakland. He has written for Commonweal. We have participated in many common efforts to ease the polarization in the Catholic Church. His intelligence and balance have always seemed to me a true gift to the church. It saddens me greatly that on the eve of his retirement, a two-decade-old encounter-perhaps an indiscretion, perhaps a grave sin-with an adult male should be publicized so as to destroy the reputation of a great churchman. I consider Archbishop Weakland a friend and pray for him in this terrible travail.

"It is a tragedy that legitimate concern about the sexual abuse of children by priests is turning into a sexual witch hunt."

"Matters," as I said, "about which we have only small glimpses of the truth." And still do. The very tradition of the confessional teaches Catholics about privacy regarding personal sins, even (or especially) sexual ones. But use of church resources to assure that privacy is another matter. That an archbishop like Weakland came to accept such a procedure-indeed, that the system in place allowed him to do so-shows how little accountability there is in diocesan finances. His decision has dismayed not only those whom Weakland served in Milwaukee, but also those throughout the country who found in his pastoral example, writings, and lectures-above all in his ability to listen and respond in a plainspoken manner-an unusually clear-eyed and tough-minded understanding of the church’s needs today.

On May 31, Archbishop Weakland candidly described his past conduct as "sinfulness" and admitted a "lack of courage" in making an out-of-court settlement rather than face scandal and embarrassment. He begged the forgiveness of the church of Milwaukee, as he had long ago, he said, begged it of God. In the hands of a Mauriac or Bernanos, the glimpses found in Weakland’s 1980 letter and recent apology might open into a memorable depiction of spiritual crisis, emotional weakness, temporary blindness, renewed grace, and now remorse, shame, and a life stripped of everything but whatever God, in loving embrace, should will. In the current crisis, these glimpses are inevitably reduced to something less. Archbishop Weakland’s heartfelt and poignant apology resonates in the thoughts of all of us who consider him a shepherd our times require.

Margaret O’Brien Steinfels is a former editor of Commonweal. 

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Published in the 2002-06-14 issue: View Contents
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