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Spotlight Report

Assault claim settled, Wis. archbishop asks to retire

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 5/24/2002

The clergy sexual abuse scandal reached higher into the leadership of the Catholic Church yesterday, as a prominent archbishop asked the Vatican to speedily accept his resignation following disclosures that he paid a $450,000 settlement to a man who had accused him of sexual assault.

Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland of Milwaukee, who offered his resignation last month when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 75, denied the accusation of sexual assault, saying, ''I have never abused anybody.'' But he did not admit or deny having had a sexual relationship with Paul J. Marcoux two decades ago. Weakland acknowledged having paid a settlement to Marcoux, and in a 1980 letter to Marcoux declared, ''I love you.''

In the letter, a copy of which was made public by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Weakland referred to several months of an intense relationship with Marcoux, but declared that ''gradually I came back to the importance of celibacy in my life - not just a physical celibacy but the freedom the celibate commitment gives.'' The letter does not make clear whether Weakland and Marcoux's relationship was physical.

Marcoux, 54, went on national television yesterday to allege that Weakland, the most prominent voice of liberalism in the American hierarchy, had sexually assaulted him when Weakland was a new bishop and Marcoux was considering entering the priesthood.

''He was sitting next to me and then started to try to kiss me and continued to force himself on me and pulled down my trousers, attempted to fondle me,'' Marcoux said on ABC-TV's Good Morning America. ''Think of it in terms of date rape.''

Weakland gave Marcoux $14,000 from his personal funds in 1980, and his letter indicates that Marcoux had been pressing him for more, supposedly to finance a religious video project called Christodrama. Then in 1998 the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and Weakland paid Marcoux the $450,000 settlement, with the understanding that Marcoux would turn over all documents and would never disclose any of his allegations.

Marcoux could not be reached yesterday, but his former lawyer, Brent D. Tyler of Montreal, said that Marcoux believed he was no longer bound by the confidentiality agreement, which includes a provision declaring that Marcoux would have to repay the money if he spoke about his allegations. Tyler said he was not sure what Marcoux's basis was for concluding he was not bound by the confidentiality agreement. Unlike some bishops who have released all victims from confidentiality agreements, Weakland has not granted a blanket confidentiality waiver, although his spokesman did at one point say that people who had been victimized as children could speak at a ''listening session'' even if they had signed a confidentiality agreement.

''I've been involved in the coverup,'' Marcoux said in the television interview. ''I accepted money to be silent about it, not to speak out against what was going on.''

Weakland said he would not talk about his settlement with Marcoux because of the confidentiality provision. But he issued a brief statement saying that he had asked Pope John Paul II to ''accelerate'' the acceptance of his resignation.

''Given the climate in today's world where the Church must regain its credibility, this situation would be an added and continuing distraction from that goal,'' he said. ''I do not want to be an obstacle to that search on the part of the Church, which I will continue to love with all my heart and which I have served to the best of my abilities for these fifty-one years.''

Weakland has been criticized for, and has apologized for, his handling of clergy sexual abuse cases. In 1992 he said he might have made a ''bad judgment call'' by following what he said was the advice of psychologists in allowing the Rev. William J. Effinger to return to ministry after having been accused of sexually abusing a young boy. Late last month, Weakland announced a zero-tolerance policy, saying he would remove from ministry any priest who had sexually abused a child.

Over the last 15 years, more than 1,500 priests have been accused of sexually abusing children over several decades. Now an increasing number of bishops have been accused of misconduct, in some cases with adults, and in some cases with minors.

This week, the bishop of Lexington, Ky., J. Kendrick Williams, suspended himself after he was accused in a civil lawsuit of sexually abusing an altar boy 21 years ago. He has denied the allegations.

''The range and extent of the damage to the church seems to transcend ideology, generation, and location,'' said Chester Gillis, chairman of the theology department at Georgetown University. ''One can see the church as under siege by its critics and sometimes its victims, or one can see the church reaping 30 years of intentional or benign neglect of issues of sexuality and potential sexual abuse.''

Some of the accusations may be false - a 1993 accusation against the late Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin of Chicago was recanted, and this year an accusation against Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles was dismissed by police. But six US bishops have resigned over their own personal sexual misconduct over the last 12 years.

''It's important to underscore that these are just accusations, but from the start of this I think it was understood that it would not be surprising if a pattern of infidelity to the church's teachings and to vows of celibacy had not also involved some bishops who were trained and ordained at a time when there was a widespread wink-and-nudge atmosphere with respect to the church's teachings on human sexuality,'' said the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things, a journal about religion and public life. ''There's no way so much malfeasance could have been tolerated for so long without some bishops being implicated.''

Neuhaus is among a number of prominent Catholic thinkers who are now suggesting that the worst of the scandal is yet to come. Such an argument has also been made by the Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a widely published theologian at the University of Notre Dame.

''The scandal and the humiliation has to be allowed to do its work, and it may well be that we've not seen the full fury of the storm,'' Neuhaus said. ''From the very beginning we should have been braced for this, and should have realized that if there is to be a genuine purification, a real change, and a conversion, it will likely not come before considerably more pain.''

The Rev. Donald P. Senior, president of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, a seminary that trains priests, agreed.

''There are probably going to be a lot more shoes dropping, in terms of accusations,'' Senior said. ''This just increases the sense of sadness and dismay that everybody's feeling, and I think it points all the more to the church having to deal with this in a definitive and forthright way, starting with the bishops' meeting in Dallas. There has to be an absolute turnaround.''

But some critics cried foul, arguing that the accusation against Weakland does not belong in the public eye because it does not involve the sexual abuse of children.

''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,'' said Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, editor of Commonweal magazine, an independent Catholic journal. ''It is a tragedy that legitimate concerns about the sexual abuse of children by priests is turning into a sexual witch hunt.''

Weakland is one of the most prominent members of the Catholic hierarchy, beloved by progressives and derided by traditionalists for his advocacy of theological and liturgical liberalism. He was the key architect of the bishops' landmark Pastoral Letter on the Economy, which in 1986 called on the nation to make the poor a higher priority in economic planning. Conservatives have criticized him for allegedly not being outspoken enough against abortion, and for a cathedral renovation project they attempted to persuade the Vatican to block. He has been open to a reconsideration of priestly celibacy, declaring that ''The pool of celibates is so limited that to get the number of priests, the quality of priests that we need, the pool is just too small.''

''He's been an excellent pastor, and he's widely appreciated by the parish clergy, but there has also been a group that has been on his case for a number of reasons, and he is probably not in the mainstream of the episcopacy of this country, liturgically or culturally,'' said the Rev. Thomas Hughson, a professor at Marquette University.

Weakland has an unusual background for a bishop - he is not a diocesan priest, but a Benedictine monk. He served as abbot primate of the International Benedictine Confederation before being named archbishop of Milwaukee by Pope Paul VI in 1977.

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 5/24/2002.
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