In spring 2002, as the scandal over sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests was escalating, the long career of Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland of Milwaukee, one of the church’s most venerable voices for change, went up in flames one May morning.
On the ABC program “Good Morning America,” the archbishop watched a man he had fallen in love with 23 years earlier say in an interview that the Milwaukee archdiocese had paid him $450,000 years before to keep quiet about his affair with the archbishop – an affair the man was now calling date rape.
The next day, the Vatican accepted Archbishop Weakland’s retirement.
Archbishop Weakland, who had been the intellectual touchstone for church reformers, has said little publicly since then. But now, in an interview and in a memoir scheduled for release next month, he is speaking out about how internal church politics affected his response to the fallout from his affair; how bishops and the Vatican cared more about the rights of abusive priests than about their victims; and why Catholic teaching on homosexuality is wrong.
“If we say our God is an all-loving god,” he said, “how do you explain that at any given time probably 400 million living on the planet at one time would be gay” Are the religions of the world, as does Catholicism, saying to those hundreds of millions of people, you have to pass your whole life without any physical, genital expression of that love?”
He said he had been aware of his homosexual orientation since he was a teenager and suppressed it until he became archbishop, when he had relationships with several men because of “loneliness that became very strong.”
Archbishop Weakland, 82, said he was probably the first bishop to come out of the closet voluntarily. He said he was doing so not to excuse his actions but to give an honest account of why it happened and to raise questions about the church’s teaching that homosexuality is “objectively disordered.”
“Those are bad words because they are pejorative,” he said.
Archbishop Weakland’s autobiography, “A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church” (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), covers his hardscrabble youth in Pennsylvania, his election as the worldwide leader of the Benedictine Order and his appointment by Pope Paul VI to the archbishop?s seat in Milwaukee, where he served for 25 years.
“He was one of the most gifted leaders in the post-Vatican II church in America,” said the Rev. Jim Martin, a Jesuit priest and associate editor of America, a Catholic magazine, “and certainly beloved by the left, and sadly that gave his critics more ammunition.”
In an interview at the Archbishop Weakland Center, which houses the archdiocesan cathedral offices in downtown Milwaukee, Archbishop Weakland said the church opened itself to change in the 1960s and ’70s after the Second Vatican Council but became increasingly centralized and doctrinally rigid under Pope John Paul II.
Archbishop Weakland was among those who publicly questioned the need for a male-only celibate priesthood. He also led American bishops in a two-year process of writing a pastoral letter on economic justice, holding hearings on the subject across the country.
A later effort by the American bishops to issue a pastoral letter on women was quashed by the Vatican, he said, because the Vatican did not want to give the national bishops conferences the authority to issue sweeping teaching documents.
The archbishop said it was partly because of his strained relations with Pope John Paul II that he did not tell Vatican officials in 1997 when he was threatened with a lawsuit by Paul J. Marcoux, the man with whom he had a relationship nearly 20 years before and who had appeared on “Good Morning America.”
Mr. Marcoux said then that he had been deprived of income from marketing a project he called “Christodrama” because of Archbishop Weakland’s interference. Archbishop Weakland said he probably should have gone to Rome and explained that he had had a relationship with Mr. Marcoux, that he had ended it by writing an emotional letter that Mr. Marcoux still had and that the archbishop’s lawyers regarded Mr. Marcoux’s threats as blackmail.
But, the archbishop said, a highly placed friend in Rome advised him that church officials preferred that such things be hushed up, which is “the Roman way.”
“I suppose, also, being frank, I wouldn’t have wanted to be labeled in Rome at that point as gay,” Archbishop Weakland said. “Rome is a little village.”
Asked if he had regrets about the $450,000 payment to Mr. Marcoux, he said, “I certainly worry about the sum.”
The morning in 2002 that Mr. Marcoux surfaced on national television, Archbishop Weakland said he phoned the pope’s representative, or apostolic nuncio, in Washington ” Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo ” who, he said, told him, “Of course you are going to deny it.”
Archbishop Weakland said he told the nuncio that while he could deny emphatically that it was date rape, “I can’t deny that something happened between us.” (Archbishop Montalvo died in 2006.)
Archbishop Weakland is still pained that his scandal, involving a man in his 30s, became intertwined with the larger church scandal over child sexual abuse.
But at the time, many Catholics in Milwaukee said they were angrier about the secret settlement with Mr. Marcoux than with the sexual liaison.
Archbishop Weakland and the Milwaukee archdiocese are also the target of several lawsuits accusing them of failing to remove abusive priests, allowing more minors to be victimized.
In the interview, he blamed psychologists for advising bishops that perpetrators could be treated and returned to work, and he blamed the Vatican’s tribunals for spending years debating whether to remove abusers from the priesthood. In one case, he said, the Vatican courts took so long deciding whether to defrock a priest who had abused dozens of deaf students that the priest died before a decision was reached.
“The concern was more about the priests than about the victims,” Archbishop Weakland said.
In Milwaukee, Peter Isely, the Midwest director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said Archbishop Weakland ultimately failed his people.
Mr. Isely pointed out that while Archbishop Weakland was waiting for the Vatican courts to defrock abusive priests, he allowed them to continue working in ministry without informing parishioners of their past. And he said the $450,000 payment was particularly galling to victims because many received “no compensation whatsoever.”
In June, Archbishop Weakland, who has been living in a Catholic retirement community since his resignation, is moving to St. Mary’s Abbey in Morristown, N.J., where he said he would be closer to his family in Pennsylvania and grow old in the care of a community of Benedictine monks.