A funeral for a sinful priest
Weakland gets a Mass at the Cathedral
Note: this appeared in the Monday edition of the “Life, Under Construction” newsletter. If you’re interested in subscribing (and you should be), click the button below.Life, Under Construction every Monday and Thursday
The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones
Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, III, 2
Rembert Weakland, the archbishop of Milwaukee from 1977 to 2002, died August 22, 2022 at the age of 95. His death left the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s headline writer struggling for a way not to speak ill of the dead.
“Former Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland dies at 95, leaves complex legacy.” “Complex” is a word. It’s hardly a synonym for the words most of us would use.
But the article itself quickly gets to a fraction of Weakland’s “legacy” that led to his public disgrace.
“Weakland served as Milwaukee archbishop for 25 years before stepping down in 2002 amid a scandal that involved paying hush money to a man who had accused him of sexual assault,” the authors wrote in the third paragraph.
“Weakland, who protected abusive priests and at least initially treated complaints about them with disdain, came to be a face of the crisis in southeastern Wisconsin, a fate that would obscure his earlier accomplishments for the rest of his life.” (As if the tragedy was the damage to Weakland’s reputation.)
Weakland didn’t just “retire” in 2002. He resigned in disgrace after the story of the hush money (taken from the archdiocese) came out. And before he retired, Weakland had a career of knowingly moving priests who had abused minors from parish to parish, placing more children in harm’s way.
After his resignation, Weakland attempted to move away from the victims to St. Mary’s Abbey in Morristown, N.J. When that fell through, he attempted to return to St. Vincent Archabbey where his seminary studies began. Neither of them wanted Weakland as a resident when his intentions became public because of his conduct as archbishop.
Unfortunately, it appears that the archdiocese, which Weakland so poorly served, is in denial about the seriousness of Weakland’s behavior. The archdiocese didn’t mention any of the scandals, not a reference to a “complex legacy” or even “a troubled history.”
Instead, the statement spent over one hundred words on Weakland’s musical career, including how he received a Ph.D. in musicology from Columbia University in New York.
This, from an archdiocese that had to financially settle with hundreds of survivors of sexual abuse which was either covered up or occurred during Weakland’s tenure. Weakland’s name even had to be removed from the building which houses the parish offices.
But if that wasn’t insult enough to the victims, the archdiocese is planning to honor Weakland with a funeral on Tuesday presided over by Archbishop Jerome Listecki, the current leader of the Catholic Church in Milwaukee.
“A concelebrated Mass of Christian Burial with Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki presiding will be celebrated at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, 812 N. Jackson Street, Milwaukee on August 30, 2022 at 4:30 p.m,” according to the archdiocese. “Priests are invited to concelebrate. Please bring an alb and white stole. Visitation will be held at the Cathedral on August 30, 2022 from Noon to 4:00 p.m.”
Will there be a rebuttal afterwards in the church basement? “Please pass the casserole and, by the way, one of Weakland’s victims would like to say a few words, your eminence.”
Nobody should wish to deny Weakland a Catholic burial, nor should we deny Weakland a prayer for his soul. Our faith teaches us we’re all sinners and even those who committed grave sins of tremendous injury can still find salvation. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” is not just to be mumbled under our breaths but obeyed with our whole hearts, no matter how difficult we find the task.
“I take seriously Jesus’s scandalous friendship with ‘sinners and tax collectors’ and considered Archbishop Weakland, a deeply sinful man, a friend,” said Fr. James Martin, an editor with America, a Catholic magazine. “The heart of Jesus’s message is that no one is beyond God’s infinite mercy, not even a murderer, not even Rembert Weakland.”
Martin’s comments followed his apology to Weakland’s victims for his now-deleted Twitter posts that failed to mention the harm caused by the late archbishop.
“I can see how people thought I was downplaying (or even ignoring) his sins and crimes,” Martin wrote. “I’m sorry for not being clearer about that.”
If Martin could see how his simple social media posts could offend those injured by Weakland, why can’t Listecki and the archdiocese see the insult caused by honoring Weakland with a Mass at the Cathedral?
Weakland himself recognized the scandal that would have been caused to the Catholic Church had the archdiocese had a public funeral for one of the priests accused of being a sexual predator. In a letter to a nun regarding the funeral for Fr. Lawrence Murphy, Weakland wrote:
I did not want a public funeral Mass for Father Murphy in order to avoid the kind of publicity that would simply have dragged his name across the pages of the press in a way that we don’t need. I am sure you understand the sentiment among so many members of the deaf community and how emotional they are about this issue. I talked in Rome at great length about how to handle all of this, so that we would not create any more negative publicity toward Father Murphy than need be. I can readily assure you, Sister, that jf I had permitted a public funeral of the kind that was wished for, it would have been· awful in terms of the reaction and how the press would then have dealt with all that is out there. To protect Father Murphy’s good name I had to do what I did and keep this as quiet as possible. So far we have succeeded in preserving his reputation, and I hope we are able to do so in the future.
It’s too late to protect Weakland’s “good name,” but the archdiocese could have chosen to respect the victims of sexual abuse in the Milwaukee Archdiocese with Weakland’s funeral. There is a difference between a simple Christian burial and a Mass presided over by one of the Princes of the Church at the Cathedral where Weakland no longer presided. If we cannot, as good Catholics, ignore the sinful nature of the deceased to the point of removing his name from the side of the building because of the pain it caused his victims, how can we fling open the doors to honor him inside?
After resigning as archbishop, he continued to celebrate Mass for the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi in St. Francis. Weakland will eventually be buried in Latrobe, PA. Surely there was a more appropriate venue for his funeral Mass.
We have to note the irony of the Catholic Mass for Weakland being said at the Cathedral, the site of Weakland’s final injury to the Church. The Cathedral was remade in Weakland’s vision. As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported, “Traditionalist Catholics bitterly described it as the destruction of a sacred space that went beyond matters of artistic taste and violated canonical norms.”
There are many Milwaukee Catholics who have not set foot in their Cathedral since (including my family).
Among the changes, Weakland had the Cathedral converted to a theater-in-the-round. On Tuesday, Weakland’s funeral will place him at the center of attention, just where he always wanted to be.
James Wigderson, Waukesha, August 28, 2022