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Explaining that $450,000

May 30, 2002 | Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The revelation that former Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland had an affair with a graduate student more than 20 years ago has produced disappointment, anger and even large measures of sadness and sympathy among Catholics for a man they held in high esteem but who once stumbled from the path his church ordained.

Those feelings are understandable, but Weakland's struggle with celibacy is, of course, a matter for Catholics. The general public has an interest that is far less theological. It has to do with the $450,000 the Milwaukee Archdiocese paid to the man - Paul Marcoux - to buy his silence. The Milwaukee district attorney's office is investigating where the money came from, and the feds may look into it as well. Those are entirely appropriate investigations, even if it is unlikely that any civil law was broken.

Authorities say they will tote up just how much money Weakland earned for the archdiocese from honorariums and other sources. He claims that he personally brought in more money than the archdiocese paid out. That's fine, but how much money Weakland made is irrelevant. He made that money in his official capacity as archbishop, and he gave it to the archdiocese. There were far better uses for those funds than paying off Marcoux.

Weakland certainly knew that. In a 1980 letter to Marcoux, when Marcoux was pressuring Weakland for money, the archbishop wrote: "I consider all that church money as a sacred trust; it represents the offerings of faithful and I must be accountable to them for how it is all spent. There are hundreds of requests on my desk for funds for worthy causes, for inner city projects, to the elderly, to the handicapped, etc."

In the letter, Weakland did not differentiate between money he had earned and money given to the church by parishioners. "All that church money" was a sacred trust. Then, he turned around in 1998 and knowingly and willingly betrayed that trust. It was not a mistake; it was not a stumble; it was not yielding to temptation. It was a very deliberate betrayal to ensure that his own reputation would not be smeared. And it came during a time when Weakland's archdiocese not only refused to pay real victims of pedophile priests, but even turned around and countersued one to recapture the church's legal fees.

Weakland also had help. Auxiliary Bishop Richard Sklba and archdiocesan financial officer Wayne Schneider knew of the payment. Did they raise questions about it, or did their loyalty to Weakland outweigh their loyalty to the church and its parishioners? And what does this episode say about Sklba's ability to lead the archdiocese until the Vatican appoints Weakland's successor?

Weakland is expected to appear on Friday at the Cousins Center. We hope he gives the public a better explanation of why he acted as he did. Not of how or why he stumbled into an affair, but why he chose to throw away nearly a half-million dollars of archdiocesan money rather than acknowledge his mistake and ask parishioners for their understanding.

And at some point, Sklba and Schneider - and anyone else who knew - need to explain why they helped.

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