Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Gay Bishop Feels "No Diminution of God's Love"

Rejects “objectively disordered” language of the Vatican
to describe homosexuality as “unhelpful, even harmful”

I’ve been hearing good things about A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church, the recently published memoirs of Archbishop Rembert Weakland. Following, for instance, are excerpts from William L. Portier’s July 17 Commonweal review.


Lord Jesus Christ . . . look not on our sins, but on the faith of your church.” During his more than half-century as a priest, Rembert Weakland has prayed these words countless times. After May 23, 2002, when Paul Marcoux appeared on Good Morning America accusing him of “date rape,” he no doubt prayed them with new poignancy.

For most of us sinners, our infidelities remain mercifully shrouded. Despite our transgressions, we keep what used to be called our “good name.” On May 31, 2002, in a rite of public penance, Archbishop Weakland apologized to the clergy and people of Milwaukee “for the scandal that has occurred because of my sinfulness.” Though he convincingly denies the charge of date rape, Weakland admits having broken his vow of celibacy. In a legally defensible but morally dubious decision, he also used diocesan funds to pay Marcoux a $450,000 settlement in 1998. “Did I do what was right, or was I only protecting my own hide?” he continues to ask himself. Marcoux claimed damages, not for “date rape,” but for Weakland’s allegedly hindering him-by criticizing his Christodrama video project-from earning a livelihood. Though the settlement arguably saved the archdiocese a lot of money, it also temporarily protected Weakland’s good name. Then, in May 2002, he lost that as well.

The former abbot primate of the Benedictines, who was architect of the 1986 USCCB pastoral letter Economic Justice for All and one of the leading progressive prelates in the U.S. church, was outed as a homosexual and accused of sexual abuse on national television just as outrage over clerical abuse of children was becoming front-page news across the nation. His personal failings, magnified and distorted, became the stuff of public entertainment. The archbishop was brought low.

Weaker men might have been grateful to slink away in quiet shame. Seven years later, Weakland is back with his memoir, A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church. A prologue titled “Broken and Re-Glued” recounts the events of spring 2002. Paradoxically, the scandal allowed him to find release and the freedom “to come to terms with my life as a whole in a spirit of truth and sincerity that had eluded me till then.” Tempering his candor about his loneliness as a bishop and “late sexual awakening” with the reserve characteristic of his generation, he nevertheless speaks openly of his homosexual orientation, refusing to describe it as “objectively disordered,” rejecting such language as “unhelpful, even harmful.” Of his sexual orientation, he says simply, “Either God created me that way or permitted forces beyond my control to make me that way, so I felt no diminution of God’s love. I did not see myself as a person defined by my sexuality.”

. . . Weakland writes movingly of his struggles [during the early-mid 1970s] with loneliness, the consciousness of his sexual orientation, and the celibate vocation. He sees the fundamental choice of this crucial period after the council as between pluralism and inculturation on the one side and curial centralization on the other. In the context of the synods, the question of the nature and authority of national episcopal conferences begins to emerge as central. He portrays Pope Paul VI as increasingly fearful of national churches and anxious to avoid schism. Late in 1977, less than a year before his death, Paul VI named the fifty-year-old Weakland archbishop of Milwaukee.

Sure to draw attention is Weakland’s account of his treatment of Milwaukee priests credibly accused of sexual abuse. Throughout the narrative, he offers a “chronological perspective,” one he finds often lacking in the press, on our society’s shifts from moral to medical to criminal categories in understanding sexual abuse. He argues that by the pivotal year of 1985, the Vatican had tied the hands of national bishops’ conferences to such an extent that the U.S. conference could not enforce its own guidelines. He blames East Coast bishops for failing to follow these guidelines and the Vatican for reluctance to laicize priests even when they were known to be abusers. Victims’ advocates, however, blame Weakland for failures to remove such priests from ministry. The substantial settlement he paid Marcoux only made things worse. Currently there are several cases in Wisconsin claiming “negligent misrepresentation” by the Milwaukee archdiocese during Weakland’s tenure.

His relationship with Paul Marcoux looms over Part III, despite Weakland’s attempt to confine him to the prologue. Their sexual encounter took place in 1979, during Weakland’s first years in Milwaukee. In August 1980, after extortion attempts by Marcoux, Weakland wrote him a letter, seemingly bereft of calculation, telling him, in a moving passage, that “I was letting your conscience take over for me.” At this time, Marcoux was in his early thirties. Nearly twenty years later, in 1997, he reappeared offering to sell Weakland the letter for a million dollars. This led to the legal settlement, not for any form of sexual abuse, but as compensation for Marcoux’s claim that Weakland had interfered with his “ability to earn income.” In spring 2002, a Weakland spokesman told a group of victims of sexual abuse that if they wished to disclose the terms of their settlements, the archbishop had no objection. Marcoux then disclosed the terms of his settlement and entangled their adult homosexual relationship with the sexual abuse of children. Weakland’s disentangling of them is persuasive. But the secrecy is the thing. And it remains troubling on many counts.

This book is worthwhile as autobiography, and for the history Weakland has lived through and written about so well. But most of all it is worthwhile because there is a real Rembert Weakland here. For better and often for worse, he comes out from behind his episcopal role and you recognize him. Those who wish Weakland had gone quietly away might find in his memoir more than a trace of pride - the final gesture, both obstinate and desperate, of a disgraced bishop. Others will find a strong but humbled man of God, a man whose confreres did not err when they found in him the qualities St. Benedict asked of abbots. No doubt the archbishop would agree that pride and godly strength are difficult to untangle, and Weakland ends his tale “with a fervent prayer for God’s gracious love and mercy on such a flawed and grateful pilgrim.”

To read William L. Portier’s review of Weakland’s autobiography in its entirety, click here.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Weakland, the Sex Abuse Scandal, and Homophobia
Weakland and Cutié: Making the Connections
Homosexuality and the Priesthood
Officially Homophobic, Intensely Homoerotic
The Challenge to Become Ourselves

Recommended Off-site Link:
“Spiritual Paternity”: Why Homosexual Men Cannot Be Ordained Roman Catholic Priests – Paula Ruddy (Progressive Catholic Voice, January 13, 2009).


kevin57 said...

As I posted sometime ago, a review of Weakland's book by the National Catholic Reporter is as much distressing as it is illuminating. Weakland talked about how as a new archbishop he went to Rome in an honest and sincere effort to dialogue. He (and apparently all other bishops there for their ad limina visits) got five minutes with the pope...and curial officials generally were not interested in dialogue. Weakland felt like they were "watchdogs" and "investigators."

Talk about communal and systemic dysfunctions!

FranIAm said...

I just finished this on Saturday... I thought it was a really insightful book.

I found the last pages of the book to be among the most compelling.

As indicated by the other commenter, the situation with JPII was not at all good for dialogue... but you knew this already.

All in all, I recommend this as reading for Catholics, whether they want to like Weakland or not.

Where are the Bishops today, the sitting Bishops, who might out themselves, not just as gay, but as prophets?

Michael J. Bayly said...

Kevin and Fran,

Thanks for your comments.