(An edited version of this Op Ed appeared in Sunday’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel “Your Views”.)
War over Weakland is over
By Peter Isely
There was a weird phenomenon that persisted for decades after the surrender of imperial Japan to the allies in 1945 that became known in popular Japanese culture as “nipponhei” or “holdouts”. Naponhei were Japanese soldiers who either adamantly refused to believe that Japan had lost the war and continued to fight, or were so cut off from communications on remote islands in the Pacific that they never received the news. The last confirmed nipponhei was one Hiroo Onodoa who lived in the jungles of the Philippines were he successfully evaded what he thought was capture for almost 30 years. When Onodoa finally marched out of the jungle and formally surrendered he was wearing an immaculately kept dress uniform. He was age 52.
As a survivor of childhood sexual assault by a priest of the Milwaukee archdiocese, it is astonishing to read Todd Robert Murphy’s strange nipponhei like revisionist history of Archbishop Rembert Weakland (“A reappraisal of Archbishop Rembert Weakland”).
No one seems to have told Murphy that for nearly 25 years Weakland planned, directed and implemented a wide spread and systematic cover up of sex crimes against children by dozens of Catholic priests and religious clerics. Weakland’s record is one of the best documented in the entire history of the now global sex abuse crisis in the church, including tens of thousands of pages of recently court ordered released pages of internal church files, hundreds of hours of depositions of top church officials (including Weakland) and serial offenders, and the direct testimony, reports or admissions of what must now be well over 1,000 victims, among them 200 deaf youngsters by the infamous Fr. Lawrence Murphy. That number is likely a fraction of the actual total, since most victims of childhood rape and sexual assault never come forward and report the crime.
A few years ago, I received a call from a survivor of one of these predator priests that Weakland shuffled and sheltered around the archdiocese. He had a brother, let’s call him Michael, who was also molested by the same priest. Michael had just gone to the local Catholic cemetery to visit his mother’s grave. Michael also took his grandfather’s shotgun with him. He took his life, on his mother’s grave. The body, I was told, could only be identified because a business card from the archdiocese was found on his person. Michael, for whatever reason, had seeking some kind of help or relief from the archdiocese. The priest who assaulted Michael was known by Weakland and his second in charge, Bishop Richard Sklba, to have been a child sex offender.
I would like to say that Michael’s case is unusual. It’s not. Two of my classmates assaulted by the same priest who assaulted me, Capuchin Fr. Gale Leifeld, have since taken their lives. One on Christmas Eve under a lonely freeway underpass. Again, a shotgun. Leifeld was also known by Weakland to have sexually assaulted youngsters.
That is why the just resolution of the almost 600 victim/survivor cases currently in federal court in Milwaukee should be Murphy’s and every Milwaukee Catholic’s first concern, not recycling by proxy his publicly discredited, self-serving and thoroughly fictitious defense of himself. The war to end the interminable court battle against these survivors by Weakland’s successor, Jerome Listecki, would be a good place to start.
As for Weakland’s “legacy” that Murphy is so keen on trying to resurrect and revise, according to victim’s attorneys, there are well over 8,000 alleged criminal acts by at least 144 alleged clerical offenders against children that have taken place in the Milwaukee Archdiocese that have been reported to the court. Most of these crimes occurred when the archdiocese was under the control of one man: Rembert Weakland.
In fact, Weakland knew there were so many priests assaulting children under his supervision that, according to his 2008 deposition, he never informed parishes with offender priests assigned, or at one time assigned to them, because, as he put it, that would entail notifying “nearly all” of the 300 parishes of the archdiocese and presumably, that’s the only job he would have been doing.
The only decent thing left for Weakland and his few remaining followers to do is the one thing Weakland has not done: to apologize and keep apologizing.
Weakland has never apologized publically to victim/survivors and our families. Apologizing for getting caught in sexual misconduct with an adult and for taking nearly $450,000 in church funds to hush it up after being exposed in the national media is not an apology for routinely transferring and concealing child molesters.
Weakland has never apologized for his written remarks in the Catholic newspaper that not all child victims of priests “are so innocent” and that some victims are “street wise and savvy.” He never apologized for his later interview with the Milwaukee Journal where he opines that once a priest loses sexual interest in a child “the squealing starts” and “you have to deal with it.” He has never apologized as to why he commissioned a bronze relief of himself in the cathedral, which is still there, depicting himself in the place of Christ shepherding little children, when the reality was hundreds, maybe thousands, of children were sexually assaulted and raped, their lives destroyed under his watch.
Weakland could apologize for taking $.1.5 million dollars from the Archdiocese supporting fund and having two academic chairs named after him in the Benedictine College in Rome, one ironically titled the “Rembert Weakland Chair in Social Justice,” when so little justice and compensation has been provided to survivors. And he could apologize for going after victims with court costs after a controversial Wisconsin Supreme Court decision bared any lawsuits against sex offender clergy or bishops as a violation of the 1st Amendment. Weakland was ready to garnish wages and put liens on homes, even when the priest had admitted to Weakland he had sexually assaulted the plaintiff as a child and had been transferred into that child’s parish with a prior history of criminal acts.
The wars over Weakland supposed “progressive” theology and liturgical practices are long over. Whatever liberal and conservative battles were fought concerning him have faded into quaint insignificance compared the legacy of pain and anguish he has left for survivors and families to carry.
Is it a surprise that in Murphy’s cave we don’t hear Michael and the voices of those survivors and our families? Albert Camus once said that history is most often written by those who make history, not those who suffer from it. For some, like Michael, history was simply too much to bear. What justice requires is not that Weakland’s history be revised but that Michael’s finally be written.
Peter Isely is a survivor of childhood sexual assault by a religious order priest of the Milwaukee Archdiocese, the Midwest Director of SNAP (The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) and a graduate of Harvard Divinity School.