MILWAUKEE — Tuesday’s public funeral for former Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland sparked a lot of difficult emotions and conflicting points of view.
In his 25 years as archbishop from 1977 to 2002, Weakland admitted to covering up sexual abuse by priests and using $450,000 in church funds to silence a male lover, who later accused Weakland of date rape. Weakland maintained it was a consensual relationship.
The current leader of Milwaukee’s Catholic Church, Archbishop Jerome Listecki, led Weakland’s funeral mass at The Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, which is the flagship church of Milwaukee’s Archdiocese.
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“It’s an embodiment of how little has changed and a slap in the face to survivors,” said Chris O’Leary, who was abused by a priest when he was a child. “There’s too much passivity. There’s too much enabling.”
O’Leary found out there was going to be a public funeral for Weakland and drove from St. Louis to stand outside of the service with a sign that reads, “What About Survivors?”
“No one should be going to this funeral,” said Peter Isley, who was abused by a priest when he was a child, and now leads the survivor advocacy group, Nate’s Mission. “By going to the funeral, priests and bishops are showing the community, they’re above all of it."
Isley and other survivors tied up photos outside the cathedral of more than 75 abusive priests under Weakland’s tenure. They also displayed posters showing young clergy abuse survivors with the message, “stolen bodies.”
“It should have been a private funeral, and that could have easily been done,” said Isley. “Weakland is going to be buried in Pennsylvania, where he’s from. Do it there.”
Dozens of people, and priests, attended the funeral and visitation for Weakland.
“I just wanted to pay my respects,” said Roland Gutknecht, who drove from West Bend. “Growing up, I received communion every week from Archbishop Weakland. He was always kind. I remember him being a good person. We all know the controversies, and today, I thought I’d look past that. I kneeled and prayed and asked God to forgive him for what he did or didn’t do.”
In a 2008 state court deposition, Weakland admitted to shredding copies of sex abuse documents, failing to notify authorities about allegations, and moving sexually abusive priests from parish to parish without warning about their histories.
An hour before Weakland’s public funeral, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee decided to change course and not let any media into the service. Jerry Topczewski, the Chief of Staff for the Office of Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki released this statement: “In an effort to reduce the additional pain that sexual abuse survivors may experience from exposure to the current level of media publicity, we’re making a change and the funeral Mass will be closed to the media.”
Regarding the decision to make the funeral public, Topczewski wrote: “A funeral Mass is an act of mercy for the dead, and an opportunity for healing for the living. We pray for all sexual abuse survivors and hope they find healing and peace.”
At the end of the funeral mass, Archbishop Listecki said, "I know in the past decade of my own shepherding mistakes are made, errors are made, judgments are made. But we do so in the shadow of the cross, and we hold that cross before us because in that cross always is God’s loving forgiveness and mercy."