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Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
7 Jun 2002
Archbishop Weakland's Legacy

by Peter Miller

The liberal liturgist's shameful departure

On May 23rd, Catholics across America started their Thursday mornings with another in a long string of shocking revelations as Paul Marcoux went on ABC's "Good Morning America" and accused longtime Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland of sexual assault. Additionally, Marcoux revealed that in 1998 Weakland paid him a sum of $450,000 to keep their "relationship" quiet. Now 53 years old, Marcoux was a theology student at Marquette University 20 years prior when he approached the archbishop for advice on going into the priesthood. It was during this encounter that the alleged abuse took place.1

In a statement released the same day, Weakland denied the abuse accusation but refused to comment on the financial arrangement, deferring to its confidentiality clause:

Except that the intent of the confidentially provision was for Marcoux's silence, not the archbishop's. That same day, Weakland, who almost two months earlier had reached the mandatory age of retirement and submitted his resignation to Rome, asked that his pending request be expedited. The Vatican announced acceptance of Weakland's retirement that next day. Bishop Richard J. Sklba took over interim leadership of the archdiocese and delivered the following tribute:

If there is any justice, he will indeed get every bit of respect he has earned for himself. After a week of near seclusion, Weakland returned to the spotlight to deliver a hollow apology:

After which he knelt before the altar and received a 90-second standing ovation from the congregation/audience. Lest we are tempted to carelessly join in this amnesic love-fest, remember that it takes very little courage to admit wrongdoing and deliver an apology only after one has been publicly exposed and no options to continue hiding the scandal with power and money remain. The whole world found out what he had done and were presented with two indisputable pieces of evidence. Weakland had the choice of fading into obscurity and denial or salvaging what remained of his respectability with a Jimmy Swaggart routine. For someone who loves the spotlight and values his "work" as much as Weakland does, he was left with no choice. However contrite and worthy of forgiveness this fallen prelate may now be, it does not negate the damage done over the past thirty-five years, nor does it change at all the lessons that must be learned.

Exhibit A: The "Love" Letter

Besides the nearly one half million dollars effectively stolen from the Milwaukee Archdiocese and paid to him in exchange for silence, Marcoux would produce a second piece of evidence — a letter written by hand from Weakland to Marcoux on August 25th 1980 (

There is little more incriminating than admissions made with your own words in your own handwriting. This correspondence, read by tens of thousands in a matter of days, started out with the ironic concern that:

Weakland goes on to discuss his personal rediscovery of celibacy's importance — perhaps about as close to admitting a sexual relationship as one can come:

He also struggles with the idea of carelessly squandering diocesan funds:

Apparently, similar scruples did not come into play eighteen years later when a half million dollars in hush money was handed over. The letter concludes:

The crux of this note was Archbishop Weakland explaining to Paul Marcoux that he could not donate funds from the archdiocese to support his project. While abuse was not apparent and Marcoux came out looking like a manipulative con artist, the evidence of a homosexual relationship is hard to overlook.

While it is unclear exactly what Marcoux's "Christodrama" is all about, it appears to be a cross between modern theater and biblical story-telling. Considering Weakland's involvement, the praise it has received from such groups as Call-to-Action and Dignity, as well as its acceptance in the Archdiocese of Seattle during the 1980's, it's safe to assume that "Christodrama" did not set any new high marks for orthodoxy.

Tolerance and hypocrisy

In his letter to Marcoux, Archbishop Weakland said he felt like the world's worst hypocrite — which is pretty much how he looked when this had all come to pass. Not more than a month before, Weakland was banging the war drums against abusive priests and openly advocating the implementation of a "zero tolerance," "one strike" policy in Milwaukee. Considering Weakland's past actions with abusive priests, this transparent PR attempt didn't fool many for long. Take for example the tolerance and compassion shown in the case of Fr. Effinger:

Shuffling abusive priests, manipulating the legal system to take advantage of loopholes and counter-suing victims are all techniques that every Catholic should have "zero tolerance" for. At the time when Marcoux's allegations were aired, there were at least six priests in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee that Weakland allowed to continue serving in parishes even though they were facing sexual abuse allegations.

And then there's Weakland's famous "blame the victim" mentality as printed in May of 1988 by Milwaukee's own diocesan newspaper. When discussing the topic of sexual abuse of children, Weakland asserted that:

Given the Marcoux story, it is not completely ridiculous to think that part of this knowledge was gained through personal experience. On at least two subsequent occasions, Weakland tried to distance himself from those foolish remarks, attempting to repeatedly justify and alter the context before finally giving up.

With Catholics in Milwaukee and elsewhere understandably outraged that $450,000 in hush money was handed over, Weakland offered the feeble justification that the money he had personally earned from articles and lectures over the years far exceeded that amount. There are many problems with this excuse ranging from the proper duties of a bishop to the nature of diocesan finances, but I'm perhaps most appalled by the fact that he considers the resources obtained by his continued spreading of heterodoxy and liberalism a shield against suspicion of embezzlement and an authorization to use what he himself once called a "sacred trust" as a personal bank account. The move was not only unethical but probably illegal — The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on May 28th that the U.S. Attorney's office would conduct an investigation into the source of the funds used for this "settlement."

Not that his justification was in any way sufficient before, but it turned out that his personal earnings did not "far exceed" the pay-off amount but came about $250,000 shy. As Weakland said in his apology:

I'd say he's already contributed enough.

Too liberal for Rome?

In case you're new to the planet, Rembert Weakland has for many years been the one bishop orthodox Catholics in the U.S. have most loved to hate. As the Australian Journal, AD2000 noted in 1992:

The long list of Weakland's antics is too extensive to recount in full. To get an idea of the scope, read through the rest of the AD2000 article found here:

While perhaps not the worst, Weakland has been the most vocal and visible dissident and rebel against Vatican authority since Hunthausen was forced to retire just over a decade ago. He became the primary lightning rod for conservative/liberal battles — a position he freely acknowledged and relished, describing himself as a "maverick" and "rebel" on multiple occasions.

In the past year, faithful Catholics in Milwaukee came to know quite well how much lasting damage could be wrought by one modernist bishop when they saw their cathedral turned into something resembling a pagan temple or a concert hall. Even when lobbyists succeeded in provoking some response from Rome, they were delivered in the form of suggestive recommendations which Weakland flatly refused to consider, asserting his own "independence" — or in Vatican II speak, "collegiality".

As in years before, the cathedral controversy resulted in no strong proactive or reactive measures from the Vatican, causing some to hope that the Church hierarchy was just waiting for Weakland to retire. Those hopes were soon called into question when his retirement request (filed on his 75th birthday — April 2nd, 2002) was, according to Vatican sources and the Milwaukee Archdiocese, put on indefinite delay, only to be processed when his homosexual and financial scandals were aired on national television. One would think the Vatican would jump at the opportunity to rid the Church of this "maverick" rather than wait nearly two months. Could it be that Rome did not see this man as the scourge Catholics in America did? Could the impressions so many had hoped Rome must have of this man be inaccurate? Since the hand was forced, it's now harder to say. What was shaping up to be an interesting exercise in excuse-making came to a quick end when Rome decided to retire the archbishop rather than let him face the music and be accountable for his actions.

However, at least one valuable lesson can be taken from the quick reaction. Just one day after the news breaking, the retirement of Archbishop Weakland was announced, demonstrating that the Vatican is both keenly aware of what's going on in America and is fully capable of acting swiftly and decisively when it deems fit. While some are quick to label pleas for action as "attacks" when they are raised to the Holy Father and insist that "the Church acts according to its own timeline," lessons from recent history show this timeline to be highly arbitrary.

Weakland and the New Mass

Archbishop Weakland's primary religious interest and the field in which he has been granted "expert" status by numerous publications has been the liturgy. When he wasn't referring to himself as a "maverick" he was relishing his role in the liturgical reform movement. In 1997, the self-described "bishop in the trenches" of the liturgical "renewal" described to the Jesuit magazine America his beliefs on the extent of liturgical abuses:

If they all disappeared decades ago, what does he consider and aberration? He goes on to lament Pope John Paul II's 1984 indult to "allow" very limited usage of the 1962 missal (under certain specific conditions) as somehow "derailing" the liturgical movement:

Although I, among many, wish what he calls "the renewal" actually had been derailed by the broadened use of the Tridentine Mass, the result has far from substantiated his conclusion. Even such, the reason he took the very questioning of the reforms quite personally was due to his experience with the construction and establishment of the New Mass. Weakland was appointed by Pope Paul VI as a consultor in 1964 and then a voting member in 1968 of the Consilium for the Implementation of the Liturgy after Vatican II.15 But he was much more than just another participant:

There are many Catholics who have stood in opposition to Weakland for as long as they can remember, but will adamantly defend and support the Novus Ordo Missae as the height of perfection and in every sense, above question. Are not the beliefs and dispositions of the men who were involved in devising this missal worth consideration?

The other contributor mentioned and easily the most influential figure in the implementation of the liturgical reforms was the head of the Consilium, alleged Freemason Annibale Bugnini. Also of questionable orthodoxy, Bugnini would be dismissed by his superiors on two separate occasions, ending up spending his later years as Papal Nuncio to Iran — a reassignment that makes Fr. Fessio's exile look like the dream promotion of a lifetime.

With the input and support of such individuals, is it not reasonable to assume that at least the implementation of the liturgical reforms (if not the entire effort including the Vatican II schema and document which kicked it off) had its share of serious problems? While the subsequent fall from grace of the men involved is not necessary to observe such things, it certainly reinforces the idea that the Consilium participants had their own agendas and saw the Mass as something more in need of a "renewal" than a sacred treasure to be preserved.

Throughout his career, many Catholics have openly challenged Weakland's interpretation of what liturgical reforms were and were not called for by Vatican II. He considered himself more than qualified to interpret the intentions of the Council and, given his experience in the development and implementation of those reforms, it would appear that this conception was vindicated by Rome very early on. If he's right, then Sacrosanctum Concilium is deserving of a second look.

One less wolf

As Weakland departs from his position of leadership and perhaps becomes an indentured servant of the Milwaukee Archdiocese, what is the legacy he leaves behind? According to Rod Dreher of National Review Online:

Although Weakland's fall may have been cause for temporary schadenfreude on the part of his opponents, how much of a cause for celebration really is this? I know several Catholics in Milwaukee who were counting down the days until his seventy-fifth birthday and were starting to get a little uneasy that he was still around in late May; but when he is replaced with a slightly less liberal bishop, how much will it matter? Milwaukee still has an offensive cathedral, a dying priesthood of individuals mostly selected and promoted by Weakland, experimental liturgies, poor Catholic education programs and a host of other problems afflicting almost every American diocese. Hopefully the local Catholics have not been so jaded by twenty-five years of having a horrible bishop that their standards have slipped and they will accept (or praise) a bad bishop, thankful that "at least he's not Weakland." What about the whole pack of bishops who supported Weakland in his open defiance of Vatican authority? They knew as well as you and me what was going on in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, but not a single one stood up to offer any sort of "fraternal correction" against a man so clearly unqualified to care for thousands of souls.

No, the battle is not over. When facing a battalion of thousands, the falling of a single captain should not be cause for much pause. Although Rembert Weakland embodied many of the problems facing the Church, he was not himself the problem and his passing from a position of authority is not any sort of solution. A Church-wide crisis of Faith and morals will continue despite his retirement and will thrive if Catholics delude themselves into thinking that the end of the Weakland era represents a new Springtime for the Church.

Peter Miller
Seattle, WA

1 B. Ross, "Vow of Silence" ABC News (May 23, 2002)
2 Ibid.
4 R. Weakland, "Apology of Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland, O.S.B." (May 31, 2002)
5 "1980 letter from Weakland to Marcoux" Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (May, 2002)
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid.
9 G. Wills, "Scandal" The New York Review of Books (May 23, 2002)
10 The Catholic Herald, (May 26, 1988)
11 R. Weakland, "Apology of Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland, O.S.B." (May 31, 2002)
12 "Why is Archbishop Weakland invited to Australia?" AD2000 (October 1992)
13 R. Weakland, America (June 7-14, 1997)
14 Ibid.
15 R. Weakland, "The Liturgy as Battlefield" Commonweal (January 11, 2002)
16 T. Heinen, Journal Sentinel,
17 R. Dreher, "Weakland's Exit - A liberal bishop and his downfall" National Review Online (5/24/2002)
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