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Retiring Archbishop Faces Renewed Criticism Over Sex Abuse Case

May 3, 2002 | AP

On the verge of retirement, Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland is under renewed criticism for how he dealt with a sexually abusive Roman Catholic priest in 1979.

The release of a 1993 deposition in which Weakland said he moved the Rev. William Effinger to a new church after the priest admitted molesting a 13-year-old boy has drawn new attention to the case.

The archbishop acknowledged he did not immediately disclose the allegations to parishioners; in fact, he did so years later, after another abuse claim was made against Effinger.

"Archbishop Weakland, like the rest of the hierarchy, has shown himself willing to sacrifice people for the good of institutional image," said Daniel Maguire, a Marquette University theology professor.

Weakland issued a public apology in 1992 over the Effinger case. And last week, with sex abuse scandals battering dioceses across the country, he said the Milwaukee Archdiocese — with 685,000 parishioners in southeastern Wisconsin — would adopt a zero tolerance policy toward molestation by priests.

Weakland declined requests for an interview, but his friend Paul Wilkes said the archbishop was following the advice of therapists and thought he was doing the right thing when he transferred Effinger.

"He has been forthright about most things within his administration. When he saw problems, he addressed them early on," said Wilkes, who wrote a book about Weakland.

That's not enough for Peter Isely, a Milwaukee psychotherapist who says he was molested by a priest as a teen-ager.

"There's an immense amount of dissatisfaction and anger," Isely said. "There's feelings that the leadership of the archdiocese has failed horribly."

The deposition in which Weakland explained the transfer was among thousands of pages of court records released in April at the request of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The documents were sealed in 1993 when the Archdiocese of Milwaukee settled a civil suit with some of Effinger's alleged victims.

Effinger admitted to Weakland in 1979 he molested an altar boy at St. Francis de Sales Church in Lake Geneva, according to court records. The priest underwent treatment, then Weakland moved him to Holy Name Parish in Sheboygan.

Then in 1992, a man who said Effinger had molested him as a teen confronted the clergyman. The man recorded his conversation with Effinger, and took it to the archdiocese and a TV station.

Weakland removed Effinger and, in a Mass that year, admitted he knew the priest's history when he sent him to Sheboygan. The archbishop then apologized.

Effinger was convicted in 1993 of molesting a 14-year-old boy and was accused of abusing nine others. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, and died there in 1996.

In Weakland's deposition, he was asked if he kept Effinger's history a secret from the new parish.

"I deliberately kept it, yes," Weakland said. "I didn't think it should be divulged at that time or it was helpful."

Weakland, now 75 and at the retirement age for bishops, has said he now realizes that thinking was wrong.

He recently formed a commission to review the files of six active priests accused of sexually abusing children and the archdiocese's policy on responding to abuse. He accepted the commission's recommendation to impose a zero tolerance policy for abusers — removing any priest found to have molested minors from active ministry.

"I want to take the opportunity first of all to say to you publicly how deeply sorry I am about the abuse experienced by anyone here in the archdiocese because of any of our priests and our failure in one way or another to take care of that," Weakland said in announcing the policy.

The archbishop, who has served for nearly 25 years in his post, is waiting for church officials to name his replacement, though that may not happen for months.

The Rev. Richard Neuhaus, conservative editor of First Things magazine, predicted Weakland — a strong liberal voice on many issues, including allowing priests to marry — will ultimately be remembered more for his social activism than for his actions in the Effinger case.

"Certainly nobody welcomes this kind of controversy as you're making what you would hope would be a graceful exit," Neuhaus said. But "the archbishop's time in Milwaukee will be judged by many, many things other than this, for better and for worse."

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