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Weakland begs for forgiveness

Says earnings didn't cover settlement

By TOM HEINEN and MARY ZAHN
Journal Sentinel
Posted: June 1, 2002

St. Francis - In a historic and humbling act of public contrition, retired Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland begged for forgiveness Friday from faithful Catholics for what he termed a sinful scandal before 400 people in an archdiocesan chapel and tens of thousands of others watching live broadcasts.

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in Crisis
Photo/Jeffrey Phelps
Former Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland addresses parishioners Friday night.
Weakland's Apology
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From the Archives
Accused: Archbishop denies he abused man archdiocese paid $450,000 (5/23/02)
Text: Weakland's response to accusations (5/23/02)
Reaction: Shock, sadness, anger (5/23/02)
Accuser: Marcoux a mix of conflicting emotions (5/23/02)
Payoff: McCann may seek investigation (5/23/02)
Letter: Weakland to Marcoux, 1980
Settlement: Text of agreement between Paul J. Marcoux, Archbishop Rembert Weakland and Archdiocese of Milwaukee
Weakland: Pope accepts expedited retirement (5/24/02)
Payoff: McCann asks archdiocese for details about trail of $450,000 payment (5/24/02)
Weakland: Views take on new meaning after scandal (5/25/02)
Sermons: Priests struggle with their sermons (5/25/02)
Stingl: Catholics not keeping quiet (5/25/02)
Services : Conflicting feelings pull at area Catholics (5/26/02)
Stingl: Sin not what it used to be for Catholics (5/28/02)
Editorial: Explaining that $450,000 (5/29/02)

More Coverage
Section: Abuse in the Catholic Church
On the Web: Milwaukee Archdiocese

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His controlled, ashen-faced delivery drew a standing ovation of more than a minute and a half when he finished speaking, and he knelt in the middle of the sanctuary of the Mater Christi Chapel at the Cousins Center with his back to the people and his head slightly bowed. Many people had moist eyes; some were openly weeping.

His moving mea culpa revealed one new embarrassment, his acknowledgment that he had erred in a previous statement in which he asserted that he had raised enough money in speaking fees, gifts and honorariums over 25 years to more than equal the $450,000 settlement that the archdiocese quietly paid to the former graduate student who had accused him of sexual assault.

"In my remaining years, I will continue to contribute to the archdiocese whatever I can, and, of course, the archdiocese will receive whatever effects I own on my death," said Weakland, 75.

Later, the archdiocese released a statement saying that Weakland's work had brought in a total of $196,723 since June 30, 1978, including money it earned in an interest-bearing account.

Acknowledging responsibility

Weakland began his homily by apologizing and begging forgiveness. He said that to be authentic the church must be a community that heals, adding: "But I also know - and you do, too - that there is no healing unless it is based on truth. In my remarks I will do my best."

Six sentences later, he said: "I acknowledge and fully accept my responsibility for the inappropriate nature of my relationship with Mr. Paul Marcoux. I apologize for any harm done to him.

"At that time, 1979, I did not understand that responsibility in the same way as I do now. I have come to see and understand the way in which the power of the Roman collar can work in such relationships and, even more so, a bishop's miter."

A previous statement issued by Weakland had denied that there was any sexual abuse in the relationship, and his homily provided no elaboration on that. At the prayer service, his first public appearance since the scandal broke slightly more than a week ago, he said that the settlement money was paid in 1998 because of a claim that he had interfered with Marcoux's ability to earn income.

"Rather than spend the money litigating this claim, I agreed to an out-of-court settlement," Weakland said Friday. "In hindsight, I can see why it has the appearance of 'hush money.' Perhaps I should have handled this situation differently. . . . One of my fears in not accepting the settlement was the prospect of scandal and embarrassment for myself and for the church. For that lack of courage, I apologize."

Weakland described his own feelings as "remorse, contrition, shame, and emptiness . . . I have learned how frail my own human nature is, how in need of God's loving embrace I am."

Support in the chapel

Several people who watched him on television were critical when contacted by reporters for comments. But the overall effect on people in the chapel, which was two-thirds full, was in spirit with the Latin heading on the program for the 6 p.m. prayer service - "Miserere," a plea for mercy. Reactions were overwhelmingly positive as people filed out of the chapel, a few hundred feet from the office where Weakland had overseen the archdiocese's 685,000 Catholics.

Barbara Jo Sorensen, a staff chaplain at Milwaukee Catholic Home, gently wiped tears off her face as she silently hugged others in nearby pews after the service.

"It was very touching," she said. "He showed his remorsefulness and humility and what a really holy man he is. I think he really regrets what happened."

However, "Supporting victims is one thing, paying people to keep quiet is an entirely different issue," she said. "I pray that this one indiscretion doesn't overshadow his entire career."

Marcoux, who called a reporter Friday night, said Weakland's comments were "a courageous act."

"That's all I ever wanted from him," he said.

Marcoux said he had made two attempts to meet with Weakland before he took any legal action but Weakland did not respond.

"I put out an olive branch, and he brushed it aside. I wasn't looking for money."

Marcoux said he had asked Weakland to meet with him at a treatment center outside of Toronto that had been used by Catholic clergy and members of religious orders. He said he wanted an apology and some sort of acceptance on Weakland's part that what the archbishop had done was wrong.

Marcoux said he wanted to hold out for an apology from Weakland rather than accept the cash settlement, but his attorneys had told him he would never get that. He said the lawyers told him if he didn't agree to the settlement they would withdraw from the case.

Peter Isely, a victim of sexual abuse by a priest and one of the founders of a national organization for victims, faulted Weakland for not apologizing Friday to the victims and their families for the poor handling of their cases and for moving clergy sex offenders from one parish to another. He watched the service on television.

"We just had the longest standing ovation on historical record for the confession of weakness and sin," said Sister Joan Chittister, an internationally known Benedictine nun from Pennsylvania who has drawn criticism from the church's hierarchy for her strong advocacy for full equality for women in the church.

"What does it prove? That the people understand weakness, that they can handle sin, and that we can all grow together. . . . We've learned tonight."

Chittister, who was in Milwaukee to lecture at Alverno College, said there is a distinction between what Weakland did and what has happened in other parts of the country with pedophile priests. This was not abuse or pedophilia, she said.

"It's extortion, and I think it's unfortunate that it wasn't released by the diocese rather than by that individual because I think that people understand that growth is a process. The letter (from Weakland to Marcoux) that you published indicates growth to me, at a distance."

"I just wish there had not been a penny paid," she added.

'It is hush money'

While feeling compassion for Weakland, Rita McDonald, a Marquette University professor emerita of psychology, said she was disappointed that it took eight days to get the apology.

McDonald, who saw it on TV, also said she didn't like it when Weakland referred to the $450,000 payment to Marcoux as "the appearance of 'hush money.' "

"It is hush money," McDonald said. "That 'appearance' is very real to people."

Paul Zientek of Cudahy said outside the chapel that Weakland's talk erased some of the negative feelings he had, but he wondered if the archbishop would make good on the promise to continue to pay back the money.

Stephen L. Boehrer, a former priest and vicar for the La Crosse diocese, said he applauded the courage it took to issue the apology and for its forthrightness. However, he said, he was surprised to hear that Weakland had not contributed enough to the archdiocese to cover the settlement, contrary to earlier reports.

"I think he should have addressed that," Boehrer said.

He added: "What I didn't hear was any apology made for the structures of the church that permit secrecy in things like this to occur. I would have liked to hear some admission that some of these structures are not appropriate in an organization dedicated to the gospel values."

Others who attended the service were strongly positive.

Gloria Mason, from All Saints parish in Milwaukee, said she felt compassion for Weakland.

"I also feel great sorrow and so much regret that this would have surfaced at the end of such an illustrious career," Mason said.

Many, like Father Tony Russo of St. Martin's of Tours parish in Franklin, quietly wept through most of the apology.

"I was touched very deeply by it because of his courage and honesty and truthfulness and humility," Russo said. "It was more than I expected."

Father Rick DiLeo, who is visiting here from Houston, agreed.

"It was a very humbling moment," DiLeo said. "In his emptiness he's asking to be filled with God's grace and forgiveness. It's a very difficult moment. Hopefully, with honesty a sense of purification will come."

The apology was also a reminder that "all of our leaders have clay feet, whether they are Tom Ament or John Norquist or Bill Clinton," said Richard Lux, a professor of scriptural studies at Sacred Heart School of Theology in Hales Corners.

Marie Rohde, Jesse Garza and Jessica Hansen of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.







From the June 1, 2002 editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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