Weakland misses his last chance to tell the truth
The brave survivors of childhood rape and sexual assault of the Milwaukee Archdiocese from St. John’s School for the Deaf have been undoing the folded lies of the Milwaukee Catholic hierarchy and their Vatican overseers for a very long time: nearly four decades.
W. H. Auden wrote in his famous poem “September 1, 1933”, the terrible day the German army invaded Poland, that “all I have is a voice to undo the folded lie.”
The brave survivors of childhood rape and sexual assault of the Milwaukee Archdiocese from St. John’s School for the Deaf have been undoing the folded lies of the Milwaukee Catholic hierarchy and their Vatican overseers for a very long time: nearly four decades. Now these beautiful voices—which are really the single voice of justice for all victims of clergy sex crimes—will be heard and seen by a worldwide audience thanks to Oscar winning director Alex Gibney’s powerful new film, “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God”, which will make its U.S. premier in Milwaukee on Friday.
Survivors and family members of priest predators of the Milwaukee Archdiocese are expected to be in attendance at the premier to welcome Gibney and his film, and will once again embrace these deaf survivor champions and advocates, several of whom are long-time local SNAP leaders.
Unfortunately, Fr. Lawrence Murphy, the predator priest who is the focus of Gibney’s film, is only one of literally dozens of clerics and church workers in the Milwaukee Archdiocese—at least as many as 144, according to recent filings in U.S. Federal Court—alleged to have raped and assaulted children and minors. And most of these recorded crimes against children, over 8,000 according to the court records, took place during a 25 year period from 1976 to 2002 when the Milwaukee Archdiocese was under the control of one man: Archbishop Rembert Weakland.
The Pope might have been in Rome but it was Weakland who was in Milwaukee. During his entire tenure as archbishop, Weakland concealed and transferred child molesting clerics from one parish and school to another without alerting police or notifying the public. 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 once 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 be doing. Exactly.
In another deposition, Weakland says he didn’t tell parents and families that he had secretly assigned a known diagnosed pedophile, Fr. Peter Burns, to their parish because they would have been OK with it. Tell that to the parents of the child who was raped by Burns after Weakland reassigned him and then the youngster killed himself several months later. On it goes, predator priest after predator priest.
And this is why Weakland is the chief defendant today in the fraud cases which have brought the archdiocese into Federal Bankruptcy Court.
That is why it is frustrating and fatiguing to have to once again see and hear the now admittedly softer spoken Weakland still peddling his self-serving, mostly fictional account of how he was the insider “good guy” who tried to do “something” about Murphy. This, of course, is nonsense, and very like the same excuse that defenders of the current Pope, Benedict XVI, use to explain Benedict’s inaction and favoritism for child molesting priests when he was in charge of the Vatican’s powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It was in this role that Benedict, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was eventually put in charge of Murphy’s case and, as is well documented in Murphy’s once secret church file, pretty much did what Weakland had been doing with Murphy, along with nearly all of the other abusive priests of the Milwaukee archdiocese: nothing.
Weakland’s basic defense is what we hear from those who never reported Jerry Sandusky at Penn State to the police or the public: “I told Coach Paterno. He told me he knew best how to handle it and not to tell anyone else.” Apparently, Weakland too couldn’t tell anyone about Murphy because Ratzinger told him not to. So, like Sandusky, he had no choice but to allow Murphy continued free and unsupervised access to the boy’s locker room. There is no evidence, however, that Cardinal Ratzinger ever prohibited Weakland from informing the public, alerting parishes, or ordering Murphy into a secure facility with supervision.
Weakland also claims that both the criminal and church statutes and laws had expired on Murphy’s crimes. As for church “statutes” or so called “canon law,” these are not actual “laws” but internal church rules. American citizens are not required under the constitution to obey canon law. They are morally required to obey civil and criminal law, however, and contrary to Weakland’s assertion, Murphy could have been prosecuted, at least in Minnesota, but likely elsewhere, if he had been reported to police in those states because the criminal statutes on those crimes were, in fact, still active, right up until Murphy’s death.
Even more incriminatory are the notations in the Murphy file that the archdiocese was concerned that Murphy’s case might get into civil court or find its way into the press. That is why Weakland finally decided to “act” with Rome, after waiting nearly 20 years to do so. Weakland misleadingly writes Ratzinger that he had just “learned” about Murphy’s crimes when, in fact, he had left Murphy working in ministry and parishes in another Wisconsin diocese for years.
Ironically, Weakland says in the film that he had met Murphy “once” and found him “childlike”. This meeting took place after Weakland’s own church hired criminologist had told him that Murphy had likely sexually molested 200 deaf children and his pedophilia was so profound it was “untreatable” by mental health experts. What did Weakland do with this dangerous predator after meeting with him? Send him right back unsupervised into communities, parishes and schools in Northern Wisconsin.
But most damning of all are Weakland’s own private words on the subject. Soon after Murphy’s death in 1998, in response to a nun who has written Weakland asking him why Murphy’s funeral had not been publically advertised, Weakland explains: “I talked in Rome at great length about how to handle all of this,” he writes, “to protect Father Murphy’s good name I had to do what I did and keep this as quiet as possible.”
What’s more credible: Weakland’s interview for an HBO documentary or his own words in a private letter he wrote at the time of Murphy’s death?
As for Weakland’s further claim about how “painful” it was for him to tell the deaf community that Rome would not defrock Murphy, when the pedophile priest died, Weakland dispatched his auxiliary bishop Richard Sklba (who Weakland calls his “go to guy” on abuse cases in his deposition) to personally perform the service. Why is this significant? Because the secret church file shows that deaf victims of Murphy were begging Weakland and the archdiocese not to allow Murphy to be buried as a priest. Not only did Bishop Sklba perform the service and praise Murphy’s life and work, he dressed Murphy in full priestly vestments and the casket was open. And to this day, Murphy’s gravestone reads: “Reverend Lawrence Murphy.”
Fortunately, Weakland’s actual involvement in Murphy’s case and many other serial child molesting priest cases in the Milwaukee Archdiocese have been widely reported, especially in the Milwaukee area but also in the national media. Today anyone can examine for themselves the mountains of evidence—even with 60,000 pages of documents still to be released—of Weakland’s direct involvement in covering up for several high profile serial child molesting priests besides Murphy—such as Frs. Becker, Widera, McArthur, Burns, Effinger, Hanser and many, many others.
Finally, as if more evidence of Weakland’s character and conduct is required, when Weakland’s lawyers won an unprecedented Wisconsin Supreme Court decision in the 1990’s that immunized pedophile priests and bishops from any and all lawsuits against them—based on a controversial interpretation of the 1st amendment, the only such ruling in U.S. history—Weakland went after victims who had filed cases for court costs, even where the priest admitted to Weakland that he had sexually assaulted the plaintiff as a child and where Weakland had transferred that priest into that child’s parish with a prior history of known crimes.
One St. John’s survivor extensively interviewed in Gibney’s film, Gary Smith, was forced to sign a legal release with the archdiocese in the late 1970’s when then Archbishop Cousins required him to apologize to church officials in order to receive $5,000 for counseling. The film notes it took 20 years before Smith received the money. What it doesn’t mention is that it is Weakland who paid the check, but only after Smith was forced to sign yet another legal release. When Smith approached Weakland’s successor, Timothy Dolan, after Dolan offered small financial settlements of $20,000 to $50,000 to victims in exchange for—you guessed it—legal releases, Dolan’s lawyers told Smith he could not be helped because he had already signed a release under Weakland. All three archbishops acted exactly the same way in their treatment of Smith. And you can now add a fourth to this ignoble list, Archbishop Jerome Listecki, who is currently attempting to throw out Smith and over 550 other victim claims from federal bankruptcy court. As far as Smith is concerned, and all victims from the Milwaukee Archdiocese–whether its Cousins, Weakland, Dolan or Listecki–what’s the difference which archbishop it is when the results are pretty much the same?
Finally, Weakland has never apologized publically to victim/survivors and their families, and he could have used the interview with Gibney to perform this one decent gesture, knowing victims of priests he was responsible for would be undoubtedly watching the film. He could have apologized for his written remarks he once made in the Catholic newspaper that not all victims of priests “are so innocent” and that some victims are “street wise and savvy.” He could have apologized when in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal, around the very time he was sending secret reports about Murphy to Ratzinger, he opines that once a priest loses sexual interest in a child that is “when the squealing starts” and “you have to deal with it.” Perhaps he had in mind some of the deaf victims of Murphy who were causing him so much consternation. And he could apologize 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 so many children’s lives were destroyed under his care.
Victim/survivors in the Milwaukee Archdiocese wrongly assumed that when Weakland released his “memoirs” in 2008–where he makes the laughable defense that he didn’t know that when he became archbishop that sex with children was a crime–it would be, mercifully, the last we would have to hear from him. We were wrong. But at least this time all the folded lies of Weakland are ultimately reduced to sheer insignificance in Gibney’s epic and sweeping documentary because we finally get to hear for ourselves the words of the St. John’s survivors.
And we can never hear enough from these brave men. Ever.
SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, is the world’s oldest and largest support group for clergy abuse victims. We’ve been around for 23 years and have more than 12,000 members. Despite the word “priest” in our title, we have members who were molested by religious figures of all denominations, including nuns, rabbis, bishops, and Protestant ministers. Our national website is SNAPnetwork.org. The local Wisconsin website is SNAPwisconsin.com.
Statement by Peter Isely, SNAP Midwest Director
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