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Weakland scandal stuns friends

Archbishop escaped poverty to become leading liberal Catholic voice

Saturday, May 25, 2002

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The social and spiritual forces that formed Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee into one of the most articulate voices for liberal Catholicism can be traced to the coal mines of Cambria County and the cloister of St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, where he spent his childhood and early adulthood.

 
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The revelation that Weakland had an inappropriate relationship with another adult man two decades ago has been a terrible shock to his old friends here.

"This news is heartbreaking. I'm deeply distressed by it," said Bishop Anthony Bosco of Greensburg, his seminary classmate.

"He was, in my opinion, a good monk and a good seminarian," Bosco recalled. "He was a genius and a musical genius, too. I think his subsequent career in the church has shown the kind of person he is as far as his gifts are concerned. He has used them generously for the church."

Archbishop Rembert Weakland received an honorary doctorate in 1987 from St. Vincent College. (Post-Gazette photo)

On Thursday, ABC News reported that in 1998 the Archdiocese of Milwaukee paid $450,000 to Paul Marcoux, now 54, who claimed that Weakland sexually assaulted him in 1980. Marcoux had a handwritten letter from 1980 in which an anguished Weakland appears to break off a romantic relationship with him, though whether it had been physical is unclear.

The letter, however, implies that it was Marcoux who pursued Weakland in hope that he would finance a video project Marcoux was working on. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee said that Weakland more than reimbursed it for the settlement through earnings from his writing and speeches.

Weakland had submitted his resignation to Pope John Paul II when he turned 75 last month. But on Thursday he asked the pope to expedite it. John Paul accepted it yesterday, ending a brilliant but sometimes controversial ministry that began when the impoverished son of a widow with six children entered St. Vincent Archabbey.

Weakland was born April 2, 1927, in Patton, Cambria County, where he was baptized as George -- Rembert is the name he took as a monk. His father owned a hotel, but it burned down when Weakland was 2. Two years later his father died of pneumonia, leaving a 35-year-old widow with six children ages 6 months to 9 years.

Some people wanted to send the children to foster homes, Weakland once told The Washington Post, but his mother insisted on keeping the family together. She moved to a small house with no furnace. He recalled her chopping wood and sleeping in the living room to tend the two stoves that did little to ward off bone-chilling cold.

They received free milk and a meager welfare check until his mother took a part-time job teaching at the parish school. The pastor, he recalled, left baskets of food anonymously on their doorstep, though it was clear to the family who had brought them. His pastor also recognized Weakland as a music prodigy and ordered a nun to give him free music lessons.

One of his sisters, interviewed for an article in the Post-Gazette in the 1980s, said Weakland was "extremely bright." Their mother did not want him to enter minor seminary at 13, but Weakland marshaled the arguments that convinced her.

At St. Vincent, he proved intellectually and musically brilliant. When he became a Benedictine novice at 21, the abbot sent him to Rome, as much to gain a broad international experience of the church as to study theology. He returned fluent in five languages and with enthusiasm for the theological currents that would result a decade later in Vatican II.

Many of the monks at St. Vincent didn't want to hear the new ideas of religious freedom, liturgy in the language of the people and integration of theological and scientific thinking that had shaped him in Rome, he later wrote in his archdiocesan newspaper. They had been formed in an era when such ideas were suppressed and monk-scientists were exiled to parishes.

"The theological suppression of the first decade of the century and the fears it instilled had resulted in a total lack of theological creativity in the United States for half a century. It also left us unprepared for the dramatic changes of the 1960s," he wrote.

After his 1951 ordination the abbot sent him to Juilliard in New York, where he received a master's in piano. But his administrative gifts were so evident that in 1963, at 36, he was elected archabbot.

Almost no one from that time remains at the archabbey, said Don Orlando, spokesman for St. Vincent College and Seminary.

"There is no one here ... who would be able or willing to comment," he said.

Weakland so excelled that in 1967, at 40, he was elected the first American superior of the worldwide Order of St. Benedict. He lived in Rome for 10 years, but spent half his time visiting monasteries that were scattered from Poland to Latin America to Tokyo.

He appeared to be one of the rising, shining stars of the church in 1977 when Pope Paul VI made him archbishop of Milwaukee. But bishops would become more conservative under Pope John Paul II, who was elected the next year, and Weakland would become gradually isolated.

One of his first moves in Milwaukee was to sell the suburban mansion where his predecessor had lived and move to the cathedral rectory. He received national acclaim in 1984 for leading U.S. bishops to write a pastoral letter that called for Americans to have basic economic rights that would keep them from grinding poverty amid plenty. It was shaped, he said, by his childhood experience.

His archdiocese developed Project Rachel, a Catholic outreach to women who have had abortions, that became a model for every diocese in the nation. But Weakland drew the ire of some leaders of the anti-abortion movement in 1990 after he held six "listening sessions" for women in his archdiocese who had had abortions.

When they ended, he criticized some anti-abortion groups for acting in ways that demeaned women and failed to show compassion for serious problems that led them to seek abortion. He also sharply criticized abortion-rights groups for failing to consider the humanity of the fetus, but that was lost in the storm of complaints that anti-abortion activists sent to Rome.

As a result, Vatican officials refused to allow a Vatican-affiliated seminary in Switzerland to present Weakland with an honorary doctorate. A ranking Vatican official later sent Weakland a letter of apology for acting before getting Weakland's side of the story.

The next year Weakland was back at it, writing that, as a last resort when there is no other way to supply a large Catholic population with a priest, the church should consider ordaining married men.

He was one of the strongest defenders of U.S. bishops' efforts to approve a more poetic and idiomatic new translation of the liturgy over the literal rendition of the Latin favored by Rome. At the 1999 bishops' meeting he was the lone speaker against Rome's requirement of a loyalty pledge from theology professors at Catholic colleges.

Since 1988 he had been considered a role model for responding pastorally to minors who had been sexually abused by priests. But last month it came to light that he had transferred a known offender in 1979 and did not remove him from ministry until 1992.

His last debate with Rome was last year, when a top Vatican official -- prompted by complaints from conservative groups -- objected to some of his plans for remodeling his cathedral. Weakland did not back down, and was backed by many bishops who were concerned about micromanagement of local decisions by Vatican bureaucrats.

In a 1995 speech in Pittsburgh, Weakland said Catholics should not allow disputes between liberals and conservatives in the church to become bitter and vindictive. It is normal to have a generation of theological turmoil after great church councils like Vatican II, he said.

He cautioned against adopting every theological fad to emerge from liberal scholarship.

Priests and lay ministers must distinguish "between that which is true and that which is theory in the theological playground," he said.

In 1984 he lamented that he no longer had time to pursue music. "I have so much to do in my retirement," he said.

Now Bosco hopes that he can at least find peace.

"I just hope that all that is being publicized now will not overshadow the main and tremendous gifts that he has given to the Benedictine community when he was in Rome, to the universal church, to the many communities he has served, to the church in the United States and to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. I pray that once this subsides, however it is resolved, that he will be allowed some peace for his retirement years."

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