The Furor Over Weakland’s Bronze

Is there any organization in town that is more clueless about public relations than the Milwaukee Catholic Archdiocese?

In the midst of what should have been a celebration, the installation of new Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, the archdiocese is instead engulfed in controversy over whether it should have involved former Archbishop Rembert Weakland in the ceremony and whether a bronze image celebrating his tenure is inappropriate.

The criticism has been led by Peter Isely, the implacable director of the Midwest chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. You could argue that Isely always sees the negative about the archdiocese, but he is a smart, savvy strategist who seizes on any chance to dramatize the plight of those he represents against an archdiocese he portrays as uncaring. And time and again the actions of the archdiocese reinforce his arguments.

I don?t know what the archdiocese could have done about the installation ceremony. Not allowing any role in the ceremony for a longtime Milwaukee archbishop like Weakland would seem a tough thing to do. But the decision to immortalize him in bronze is another matter entirely.

Whatever the achievements of Weakland?s tenure (and he was among the most acclaimed and perhaps the smartest of bishops in America), he has a shameful record when it comes to protecting children from sexually abusive priests. So the last thing you?d want, if you?re the archdiocese, is something that revisits this controversy.

Yet the bronze relief pictures Weakland ?in the biblical scene of Jesus protecting the little children,? as Isely puts it. Archdiocesan officials say Isely is misinterpreting the art. Perhaps. But the archdiocese doesn?t deny the obvious: that the figures in the bronze (including the Virgin Mary and St. John) also include children. And officials didn?t imagine this would cause a controversy ?

More recently, the archdiocese told the Catholic News that the bronze image was commissioned years ago, before the evidence of all the clergy abuse arose. Isely (naturally) denies this. So the archdiocese involves itself in yet another controversy, as to when exactly enough evidence of abuse had arisen for officials to realize that a sculpture of Weakland with children might be in poor taste.

The smart thing would have been to immediately confess a goof and commission a new tribute ? and with no particular haste. Any good PR person would know this. Why doesn?t the archdiocese get it?

The answer, I fear, is this: Officials are still far more concerned about the feelings of Weakland, his longtime lieutenant Bishop Richard J. Sklba, and other officials who got enmeshed in the clergy abuse scandal. That attitude, of course, is what led the church to protect abusive priests in the first place. And that attitude, if it is indeed still entrenched, will make it very difficult for the archdiocese to ever overcome this scandal.

by Bruce Murphy