Milwaukee Catholics Look to Future
Archdiocese Replaces Archbishop after Scandal

By Juliet Williams
Associated Press, carried in Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter [Milwaukee WI]
Downloaded May 26, 2003

MILWAUKEE - It's been a year since a sex scandal tarnished the reputation of former Archbishop Rembert Weakland. Now the Milwaukee Archdiocese has a younger, more conservative archbishop - and a host of parishioners seeking real change in the church.

The archdiocese has tried to forget the scandal in which Weakland, one of the country's most liberal Catholic leaders, asked the Vatican to speed his retirement after admitting the archdiocese paid $450,000 to a man who claimed Weakland sexually abused him two decades ago.

Catholics in the 10-county southeastern Wisconsin diocese already were reeling from allegations of priest sexual abuse in their own churches and at parishes nationwide when the Weakland scandal broke, shocking everyone.

In 25 years here, Weakland was widely known for his outspoken remarks on social issues from abortion to poverty. He adopted a zero tolerance policy toward abusive priests after a commission he appointed recommended it, but was booed by abuse survivors last year for transferring an abusive priest in 1979.

Archbishop Timothy Dolan, 53, ushered in a new era: meeting face-to-face with abuse victims, agreeing to public sessions in which victims could vent their frustrations and promising openness.

The Weakland scandal was a low point for the church, "but then we also had the renewal and excitement of the arrival of a new archbishop," archdiocesan spokesman Jerry Topczewski said. He compared the turbulence to Christ's death and rebirth.

So far, the diocese has resolved only two abuse claims of dozens. Topczewski said he didn't know whether those deals have yet been signed - which amounts to slow progress for some Catholics.

Lorrie Greco, 67, of Franklin is among 250 parishioners who this year joined Voice of the Faithful here. The lay reform group originated in Boston and seeks changes in church policies.

"Underlying all of this clergy sexual abuse is the structure of the church that allows this kind of transgression to go forward," Greco said. "If we're the church, I think we can all share in that responsibility."

But most say reform is unlikely under current Wisconsin law. A 1995 state Supreme Court decision makes it the only state in the country in which people cannot sue the church. Legislation in the works would change that for future abuse victims, but wouldn't address abuse claims of adult victims who suffered decades ago.

Five plaintiffs tried to get around the law this year by suing the archdiocese for fraud, but a judge dismissed their lawsuits. The plaintiffs plan to consolidate their suits and appeal to the state Supreme Court.

At a recent Voice meeting, former U.S. Sen. Tom Barrett, now an attorney in private practice, said the church is not obligated to work out settlements with victims as long as the law stays the same.

"It's just a cold hard fact that the church has little monetary incentive to negotiate if there's not a change in the law," said Barrett, who is Catholic. "As a lawyer, I understand that. But I don't know that the church should always be relying on the legal response."

Dolan prefers "pastoral mediation" in which both sides work with an independent professional mediator toward healing - without lawyers. Victims want mediated sessions in which they can bring lawyers.

Joe Cerniglia, 37, said he was abused by the Rev. William Effinger, who died in prison after being convicted of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old boy. He said his optimism over Dolan's arrival has given way to disappointment.

"The progress in my opinion has been very limited as far as reaching out to victims. There's no incentive," Cerniglia said. "That's why we're so hopeful that this legislation can get passed."

Most victims don't want to go to court, said Peter Isely, a Milwaukee advocate for clergy sexual abuse survivors. Instead, he said they want an apology and an assurance it won't happen again.

"There has been really no accountability for their behavior," Isely said. "There were literally hundreds and hundreds of decisions made to cover this up and leave victims languishing."

Dr. Anthony Kuchan, head of the commission Weakland appointed to study the archdiocese's handling of abuse allegations, said he was impressed by the church's efforts to meet with victims. He said the archdiocese has followed its recommendations, such as screening priests and forwarding abuse claims to authorities.

However, Dolan backed out of the archdiocese's promise to publish the names of all legitimately accused priests, saying some allegations weren't proven, and some victims told him they would be ashamed to see the names published.

Weakland and Dolan declined interview requests from The Associated Press.

Weakland, now living at a complex for retired priests on archdiocesan grounds, has left behind the scandal. He ventured out for a public mass at Easter and has attended piano recitals, but he is no longer the public figure who gladly served on boards and committees.

"He's living as many retired people do. A life of peaceful, quiet reflection," Topczewski said.

Weakland's legacy is still felt in the community, said Marcus White, Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee executive director. He said as conference vice president, Weakland pushed collaboration, particularly between Catholics and Jews.

"There's certainly in this town the expectation that there ought to be strong interfaith partnerships, and I think that grows out of Archbishop Weakland's role in fostering that," White said.


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