The Weakland Case: Can Truth, Justice, Mercy and Peace be Found?

Recently the news reported about the death of Archbishop Rembert Weakland. The American Benedictine monk served as Archbishop of Milwaukee from 1977 to 2002. As reported in the New York Times, he was “The recipient of more than 35 honorary degrees and received international acclaim as a voice for change. He was an intellectual touchstone for progressive Catholic reformers. His talent led to his election in 1967 as Abbot Primate of the worldwide Benedictine Order at age 40 – the first American and youngest person to ever hold that position. Weakland became an aggressive reformer who worked to modernize and transform the order, while establishing new communities in Korea, Japan, Thailand, and India.”

He was not without controversy. He was at the epicenter of the abuse crisis. Investigations excoriated him for the way he handled abusive priests under his leadership. He was vilified for misconduct surrounding documents and other information about abuse cases. There were allegations of financial misappropriation and malfeasance. There were accusations about personal inappropriate actions between him and other people.

It has been interesting to see what people have written about the Archbishop since his death. Some have praised him. Some have foist nothing but invective upon his name.

What I have found especially fascinating has been the reactions to reactions. There has been strong criticism from enraged people against those who spoke highly of Weakland. The offended felt that fans of the Archbishop did not mention Weakland’s failures strongly enough. For example, friends of Weakland were quoted as saying, “Do you know anyone who has not sinned in their life?” Let me use that sentence as a point of departure. I draw my ideas from comments from Father Anthony and Father Harrison on their Clerically Speaking podcast I recently heard.

In my opinion, one has to make the distinction between private sins and public sins. There is a difference between wrongs committed by persons in authority and power and people who do not possess that. This is especially the case if those wronged might have been under the authority of the person in power. Catholic tradition makes the distinction that some sins are more egregious than others. Notorious sins by a public person have far-reaching consequences. These are more profound and damaging than the sins of individuals not in positions of authority.

There is a path to mercy. Truth, justice, and mercy have to be simultaneously evident if there is to be peace and healing. This is why I make the distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation.

Jesus died for all our sins. We pray for Jesus’ mercy for every sinner. Still, one of the priests on the podcast (Father Harrison) made an interesting suggestion. He said that the Church should reinstitute some type of poignant, public liturgical rite of prayer and penance. Maybe not full excommunication. Yet, for example, there should at least be some kind of exclusion from the Church for a while. The public figure should spend an extended period grieving for their sins.

Father Harrison continues. Sincere public remorse needs to be shown and proven. You might like a person’s theology. You could have been a friend. Perhaps the accused felt, taught, fought for, and liked what you did. This does not mean that you should feel compelled to eulogize him. This is especially so in the face of overwhelming, egregious, proven, public wrongdoing.

Father Harrison says that the Catholic Church “still doesn’t get it.” I agree. I still hear voices within the Catholic Church explaining how much good the Church has done to combat abuse. They mention that people are safer now than at any time in the Church’s past. We should try and “move on.”

I am convinced that this attitude continues to do incomparable damage to the Church. I know – firsthand – that this is a major reason why millions of Catholics continue to stay away from the Church. They’ve told me.

It saddens me. I am also sure that I am doing – and not doing things; saying and not saying things that are still hurting people. Most likely I don’t even know what I’m doing wrong. Few people tell me. All this continues to make being a priest in the 2022 Roman Catholic Church so much harder.

And we still have so much work left to do.

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