Retired Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland, a once-towering figure in the American Catholic Church who spent his final years in virtual exile after a public fall from grace, has died. He was 95.
He suffered a long illness and died overnight at Clement Manor, a Greenfield senior living center, the archdiocese said Monday.
Weakland served as Milwaukee archbishop for 25 years before stepping down in 2002 amid a scandal that involved paying hush money to a man who had accused him of sexual assault. Weakland had denied the allegations. He would come out as openly gay — possibly the first Catholic bishop to voluntarily do so — in his 2009 memoir “A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church."
His resignation came as the public was beginning to grasp the scope of the church’s global crisis involving the sexual abuse of minors. Weakland, who protected abusive priests and at least initially treated complaints about them with disdain, came to be a face of the crisis in southeastern Wisconsin, a fate that would obscure his earlier accomplishments for the rest of his life.
A Benedictine monk, Weakland was seen by many as brilliant; he spoke more than a half-dozen languages, and his ability to communicate with people from across the world facilitated his career advancement. He was an accomplished musician, having learned as a boy to play an old upright piano his grandmother had bought for his mother. He considered becoming a concert pianist, and studied in Europe and at the Juilliard School in New York. Throughout much of his life, he studied, played, taught, lectured or wrote about music. In 1999, he received his doctorate in musicology from Columbia University in New York. His dissertation was titled "The Office Antiphons of the Ambrosian Chant."
As an archbishop he was a divisive figure. He was viewed as erudite or arrogant; an architect of progressive reform, or the embodiment of liberal excesses wrought by Vatican II; an unwitting accomplice in a flawed system that failed to grasp the enormity of child sex abuse, or a calculating criminal who placed his church above its victims.
In the last years of his life, he was a frail figure living in a senior housing complex.
“For a quarter of a century, Archbishop Weakland led the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and his leadership embodied his Benedictine spirit,” the current archbishop, Jerome Listecki, said in a statement Monday. "May he now rest in peace."
Meanwhile, Peter Isely, of the Wisconsin-based anti-clergy abuse organization Nate's Mission, said Weakland left behind an enduring legacy of covering up abuse in the church.
"His commitment and loyalty to the church, including covering up sex crimes for decades, was strong as any member of the hierarchy of the American church," Isely said. "It was a colossal tragedy and failure that harmed a lot of children and destroyed a lot of lives."
Funeral arrangements are pending.
Born George Samuel Weakland in 1927, Weakland was the fourth of six children raised by his widowed mother in a small Pennsylvania town in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.
He attended high school at St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, then went on to St. Vincent College and St. Vincent Seminary as he followed a path to religious life. He became a Benedictine novice in 1945 at age 18; pronounced his first vows as a Benedictine monk — taking the name Rembert — a year later; and solemnly professed as a monk in 1949. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1951.
Weakland rose rapidly, accepting leadership positions at St. Vincent, in the Benedictine Order and at the Vatican. In 1967, at the age of 40, he was elected abbott primate for the Benedictine Confederation. He was the youngest to ever hold the position, and the first American.
His years as leader of the Benedictines cemented his relationship with Pope Paul VI and made him something of a global citizen. Of note, he was in Thailand in 1968 presiding at a meeting of monastic superiors when one of the speakers, Thomas Merton, was tragically killed by an electric shock. Weakland delivered the final anointing to the famed Trappist monk, writer and mystic.
In 1977, Paul VI asked Weakland to become the ninth archbishop of Milwaukee. At the time, a joke making the rounds was that the response at an assembly of Benedictine abbotts was: "Where?" and the response in Milwaukee was: "Who?" At the time, many considered the assignment a stepping stone to the red cap worn by cardinals in the church.
Weakland had not lived in the United States in a decade, and had no understanding of how a diocese or chancery office worked. He looked forward to preaching more and working in a community on issues like social justice and helping the poor. But he worried that the intellectual freedom he enjoyed with the Benedictines would not translate to his new post, and that he would miss the monastic sense of collegiality.
In some respects, both fears were realized. His relationship with the Vatican was strained almost from the beginning, as a newly elected pope, John Paul II, began to move the church to the right. In his memoir, Weakland referred to coming home disillusioned from a visit to Rome, vowing that as a bishop he would not accept what he considered the Vatican's "dehumanizing straightjacket."
He also struggled with loneliness, and though he came to feel at home in Milwaukee, he was something of a cultural misfit.
Nationally, Weakland was considered a leader among the American clergy in the years after Vatican II. He championed an expanded role for women and the laity in the church, and made no secret that he thought the door should be left open to ordaining women. He led the 1986 drafting of the American bishops' pastoral letter on the economy, tenets of which are being echoed by Pope Francis today. And he took the position that the shortage of new priests was exacerbated by the church's insistence on a commitment to celibacy.
Although he disliked the label, he was routinely referred to as the most liberal bishop in America. He chafed under the centralization of power at the Vatican, and what he saw as the philosophy that a bishop amounted to a branch manager. When he discussed his concerns with John Paul II's inner circle, he was told they disliked his attitude and lack of "docility."
In Milwaukee, Weakland became known for building bridges with other religions and reaching out to Catholics who felt disconnected from their church. He helped found and fund the Milwaukee AIDS Project. He conducted highly publicized listening sessions in an effort to understand Catholic women's views on abortion. He spoke out on issues facing everyday Catholic families — sex education, workplace dignity, social justice, financial pressures.
He responded to declining congregations, demographic changes and the shortage of priests by closing schools and either closing or consolidating numerous parishes. Some considered the decisions ruthless; others saw them as overdue and courageous. To Weakland, the process was painful but necessary.
Near the end of his Milwaukee tenure, he shepherded a radical remodeling of the interior of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, the episcopal see of the archdiocese. Traditionalist Catholics bitterly described it as the destruction of a sacred space that went beyond matters of artistic taste and violated canonical norms. But many considered it a lasting gift from a progressive, artistic visionary. The altar was moved forward, into the nave; the tabernacle was moved to a side chapel; the pews were replaced with chairs, making them easy to reconfigure. All of it was part of the post-Vatican II movement that considered the church an "assembly of believers" and removed barriers between the laity and clergy.
Living in exile
Weakland retired in 2002 after acknowledging that he used $450,000 in church funds to buy the silence of a male lover who years later broke that deal and accused him publicly of date rape. Weakland maintained that the relationship was consensual.
He was succeeded by Timothy Dolan, now cardinal of the Archdiocese of New York.
Weakland withdrew from public ministry, saying he did not want to be a distraction. He spent his days reading, playing the piano, attending the symphony and traveling. He shunned interviews. He lived in a condominium in a south side senior housing complex near Wilson Park before moving to Clement Manor in Greenfield.
For several years, he continued to celebrate Mass regularly for the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi in St. Francis.
"He had a brilliant mind and beautiful heart," Sr. Florence Deacon, the order's former superior, previously said. "We felt very affirmed and supported by him. I think all the sisters in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee did."
On two occasions, Weakland attempted to leave Milwaukee and live out his days in the monastic life that formed him.
In 2009, he arranged a move to St. Mary's Abbey in Morristown, New Jersey. Those plans fell through shortly after news accounts detailed the contents of his memoir. In the book, he said that he understood in his days as archbishop that sex with minors was a sin but not necessarily a crime. The book also recounted Weakland's coming to terms with his own homosexuality, in a church that sees homosexuality as "disordered." Weakland accepted the cancelation of the plans, saying he understood that his presence "might be a negative element" because the abbey is home to a boys college prep school.
In 2014, he told friends he was moving back to the St. Vincent Archabbey, a homecoming for him because it was where Weakland's mother sent him to begin his seminary studies in 1940 at the age of 13. Fifty years earlier, he had been archabbott at St. Vincent. However, his plans were dashed by the current archabbott, who feared the move would stir controversy.
A decade after his retirement, he was a central, if largely invisible, figure in the archdiocese's long, bitter bankruptcy proceedings. He admitted in depositions that he shredded copies of sex abuse documents, failed to notify law enforcement officials and moved sexually abusive priests from parish to parish without warning members of their histories.
Isely, of Nate's Mission, on Monday argued that for all the talk about Weakland's liberal values, he shared a "common commitment" with conservative church leaders who wanted to brush aside abuse victims and protect the church.
"In that regard, Weakland was one of the most vigorous, zealous architects of this horrific coverup," Isely said.
In 2019, in response to pressure from church abuse victims and faithful, the archdiocese removed Weakland's name from the pastoral center at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in downtown Milwaukee and from a bas-relief inside the cathedral depicting Weakland shepherding small children.
Isely said the news of Weakland's death could bring up difficult memories for survivors of clergy abuse and their families. He urged people to push for positive change in the church.
"That's the proper way to remember his life and legacy, whatever you think about him."
Annysa Johnson is a former Journal Sentinel reporter who covered religion and faith until 2020.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Rembert Weakland, former Milwaukee Archbishop, dies at 95