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John L. Allen, Jr. -
Rest of world skeptical of 'zero tolerance' strategy

Thomas P. Doyle -
Reflections from the eye of the hurricane

Eugene Kennedy -
The secret cause of the sex abuse scandal

Margot Patterson -
Support grows for zero tolerance; George calls for including sanctions for bishops

Margot Patterson -
Central question: Is proposal too tough or too lenient?

Sandra Schneiders -
The Weakland case: An invitation to cast the first stone

Posted Tuesday, June 11, 2002

The Weakland case: An invitation to cast the first stone

Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Sandra M. Schneiders is a faculty member at the Jesuit School of Theology, Berkeley, Calif.


Like many Vatican II Catholics who have looked to Archbishop Rembert Weakland as a visionary and courageous pastor and leader throughout these difficult years of postconciliar restorationism, I was saddened and deeply shocked when he was accused of sexual assault, abuse and fraud. However, as I struggled during these last few days to think my way through this distressing situation I have remained somewhat sad but I am no longer shocked. I offer my reflections in the hope that they might help others in their own struggle and also introduce some nuance and balance into the understandable disorientation arising from the moral horror and the sense of betrayal that the magnitude and evil of the clergy sexual abuse scandal has caused among the faithful.

I begin by saying that I have no information that is not in the public forum, so my interpretation is limited to what I can make of the facts available to anyone who can read the newspapers. I will organize my reflections by taking up each of the elements of the Weakland situation in turn, drawing a cumulative conclusion about what we are really dealing with in this particular case, and asking what light the gospel offers to guide our response. It was in doing this for myself that I came to realize that my shock was caused by an immediate, unreflective assimilation of the Weakland case to the sordid abuse scandal involving clergy who have used their status, sometimes over years, to rape dozens or even hundreds of children and youths for their own pleasure. Their violations in some cases were covered up by company men — bishops — who surrendered the lambs of Christ’s flock, whom they were ordained to feed and protect, to the moral depravity of those who entered the sheepfold to rob innocence, steal childhood and kill the spirit. Weakland’s case has nothing in common with this scenario.

First, the charge of sexual assault. Archbishop Weakland has categorically denied that he ever assaulted or abused anyone. The word of this bishop who has, for over a quarter century, shown himself a man of peace, committed to ecumenical and interreligious reconciliation, reaching out at his own peril to the marginalized in society and in the church, prevails easily, in my judgment, over the word of a man who has in his history a string of episodes of dissimulation and imposture, if not extortion, that are coming to light in different parts of the country. And the fact that no one else has come forward with such accusations against Weakland, and that Paul Marcoux himself apparently cannot adduce more than a single incident, makes the accusation even less credible. Assault, no.

Second, was there abuse? The self-proclaimed “victim” was 31 years old at the time, educated enough in his faith to be talking about entering the seminary and physically able. Whatever else was going on, there is no question of pedophilia or ephebophilia. If Marcoux had been even uncomfortable, much less suspicious that he was in danger, he could have simply walked away. Weakland was in no position to coerce him. I am not engaging here in blaming the victim, as in suggesting that an 8-year-old altar boy seduced the adult cleric who raped him. I am raising the question of whether, in this case, there was a “victim” at all. Or was this a sexual encounter between two adults? One of the two, Weakland, admitted in writing that the relationship was morally wrong and called it off. The other has, more than once apparently, used it for financial gain. Pedophilia, no. Sexual abuse, probably not even technically. Serial and promiscuous violation of the defenseless, no.

Freely chosen vow

What of the homosexual nature of the episode? First, a single episode of infatuation, even lasting a short period of time, does not establish sexual orientation. Many heterosexual persons have had such an experience and many homosexual persons have had heterosexual experience. But even if Weakland is gay, something that is not at all evident, sexual orientation is irrelevant in this case. What is morally wrong in this situation is that a religious —Weakland is a Benedictine monk with a freely chosen vow of consecrated celibacy, not merely an imposed obligation of clerical celibacy — had sex at all (if indeed he did). It would have been wrong whether the partner was male or female. But, second, there is something to be gained from thinking about homosexuality and religious life in this context. All religious, gay or straight, who freely choose a life of consecrated celibacy undertake to live a life of complete sexual abstinence. Sexual orientation is vocationally irrelevant. What is relevant is whether the person is capable of and committed to a life of consecrated celibacy with the lifelong sexual abstinence it entails and whether, in practicing this celibacy, he or she becomes a psychosexually mature and integrated person who can be trusted in ministry and community. Anyone, religious, married, or single, might be, lamentably, involved in a serious breach of their commitments and/or obligations without establishing a pattern of infidelity. And anyone who knows Rembert Weakland knows that he has many friends, women and men, with whom he enjoys deeply satisfying, loving, mature and celibate relationships. Moral degeneracy, no. A pattern of vocational infidelity, not according to the available evidence. Psychosexual retardation, certainly not. An objectively sinful (only God can judge subjective guilt) episode, apparently yes.

About the money

What about the money? Weakland, by his own admission, paid his accuser $14,000 of his own funds. The latter apparently obtained it as subsidy for a virtually fruitless “ministerial project.” But Weakland, in the letter his accuser made public (in clear violation of the latter’s legal obligations, his promise and any modicum of human decency) made it clear that he had no more personal funds available and that he would not violate his episcopal responsibilities to the Milwaukee church by using any money collected from the faithful to support Marcoux or his projects. The second settlement of $450,000, made apparently when Marcoux threatened to go public, did not come from funds collected from the faithful or from diocesan projects. It was taken from the archdiocesan operating budget, explained by his lawyer as funds derived from investments, over which the archdiocesan leadership had discretionary control. The reform of the seriously flawed and archaic ecclesiastical system that allowed such a settlement without wider consultation and accountability is long overdue. But it is currently in place and legal and was so when the settlement was made. Furthermore, with 20-20 hindsight we might be astounded that a man of Weakland’s intelligence and judgment could have allowed the payoff of a dishonorable man who was clearly capable of and willing to engage in blackmail. But bad judgment, even when it involves poor decisions about a lot of money, does not amount to misappropriation of funds or fraud. And while the intention was to ward off the scandal of the completely useless and unnecessary, if not malicious, exposing a 20-year-old sexual delinquency it involved no protection of a sexual predator who would thus be freed to continue his crimes. This settlement was obviously not a payment of damages or an assumption of fees for therapy, in other words an admission of abuse or assault. It was a payment in exchange for Marcoux’s silence about the incident with a stipulation that if he broke that silence the money would be returned. If the accuser had had any legitimate reason for exposing the archbishop, he should have and could have refused any such payment and come forward pressing charges. He was an adult when the so-called offense happened and was 20 years older when he revealed it. This is not a case of a terrified child finding his voice, only with help, many years after a paralyzing trauma. Nor was the climate in church or society in 1998 such that Marcoux had to fear being doubted as did so many abused children in the past. Marcoux apparently realized that, in the present climate of outrage over the mounting sexual abuse scandal, his knowledge of Weakland’s transgression, even though old, was worth a lot of money. After Marcoux got the money for promising silence, he betrayed the agreement, no doubt in hopes of more. Was the archbishop gullible about blackmail, was he imprudent, and did he use bad judgment? Apparently yes. Did he make poor use of funds in the operating budget that could have been much better spent and should have been handled more accountably? Yes. But misappropriation of funds from the faithful and/or fraud, no. Protection by silence of a dangerous predator, no.

Example of forgiveness

So, if this is not a case of sexual assault, child abuse, a pattern of serial and promiscuous violation of a celibate commitment, endangerment of the vulnerable through secrecy, financial dishonesty or fraud, what is it? It seems (and this has not been proven) that Weakland, at least objectively, committed a serious personal sin, a violation of his religious vow of consecrated celibacy, some 20 years ago. Whatever happened should not have. He came to his senses, acknowledged his guilt to God, himself and his accomplice, decided to end the relationship, and did so. As far as the evidence goes at this point, this was his last failure of this nature. How should we react to this admittedly disturbing revelation about a man held in high esteem by many people within and outside the church?

Fortunately, this is a case where we have a very clear gospel example to follow. In John 7 we read the story of a woman brought to Jesus by the religious officials, the guardians of public (and private!) morality. She had been caught in the act of adultery, and the officials challenge Jesus to participate in her execution, the ultimate exercise of “zero tolerance,” as commanded by the law of Moses. Jesus, after writing something on the ground that obviously disturbed the accusers, invited them to carry out the law, “Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone.” When they had all slunk away he said to the woman, “Has no one condemned you?” She answered, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” This story calls for profound reflection on the present case.

There is no question of the woman’s guilt. She was caught in the act. It was adultery, not fornication. She was a married woman obliged to marital fidelity, not a prostitute or even a single woman, and presumably this was her first (or only?) offense or she probably would have been apprehended before. Jesus does not use euphemisms like “indiscretion” or “inappropriate contact” or even “lapse.” He calls her act a sin.

But Jesus does not condemn the woman. He makes it clear to her and to us that condemnation is not God’s response to sin. It is the response of human beings who consider themselves morally superior to the “sinner.” Righteous condemnation of personal moral failure of others is scapegoating, loading our sins (personal or collective) onto someone who can be publicly identified, accused and then punished to exorcize our guilt. Jesus acknowledges the sin but will not participate in the scapegoating, the condemnation or the vengeance.

It is also worth noting that Jesus does not demand a humiliating “confession” of this woman, an account of when and where and what and with whom or how many times. He does not even ask for the expression of contrition or a firm purpose of amendment. He simply says, “Go in peace and get back on track.” It is what every one of us, especially when we have done our worst, hungers for and needs to hear: that God does not reject us. The God of all mercy, incarnate in Jesus, is on our side, drawing us out of the muck into which we have fallen through our own weakness, blindness, infatuation, or even malice, setting us upright before our fellow human beings and our own inner judge and empowering us to walk into the future humbled and forgiven.

Effective response

So what about “zero tolerance?” Zero tolerance is neither punishment nor vengeance. It is the only effective response to incurable pathology and the resulting moral depravity. It is and must be employed to keep people who are and will always be a lethal danger to the defenseless away from potential victims and without the cloak of the helping professions (including ministry) to give them access to victims and to shield them from detection. As far as the best medical and psychiatric data can tell us, this is the case of sexual abusers, especially pedophiles. But if we adopt a blanket policy of zero tolerance of any moral failure on the part of ministers in the church, even failures in the area of sex, we not only fail to practice the mercy and forgiveness God has so often shown us, but we will deprive the church of all those wounded healers who have learned compassion for the weakness of their fellow Christians by facing the weakness in themselves. The person who has never sinned does not exist, and the one who denies sinning is a liar (1 John 1:8). But more important in terms of ministry, the person who thinks he or she is sinless is at least useless if not downright dangerous.

As people who know we have sinned, who have been repeatedly forgiven, we are in no position to be shocked that one of our brothers, no matter how highly placed, has apparently sinned. Sad perhaps, but not shocked. And if we consult our own experience, maybe we should not even be all that sad. Maybe we should remember that God often educates us spiritually through our humiliation at not living up to our own ideals, draws us to God’s own heart by mercy, and deepens our compassion for others. I, for one, have lost none of the immense respect I have for Archbishop Rembert Weakland, a man who has struggled morally as we all have, but a man of integrity, courage and vision, a bishop who has served God’s people with boundless zeal in good times and bad for almost three decades, and a person whose compassionate love for and acceptance of the broken and marginalized in church and society no doubt owes much to his own experience of God’s mercy. Whatever he does in his retirement, wherever he goes, my prayers and gratitude are with him.