The witch hunt against Archbishop Weakland

Yes, the eminent cleric had a love affair with a younger man -- but who was the real victim?

By Bruce Shapiro - Margaret Spillane
May 25, 2002 11:29PM (UTC)
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Anyone tuning in to ABC's "Good Morning America" Friday began the day with a sickening tale: What host Charles Gibson called "serious new allegations of sexual misconduct in the Catholic church." Unlike the Boston Globe's months of investigative reporting involving Cardinal Bernard Law, the misconduct reported by the network's correspondent Brian Ross did not involve pedophilia. Instead, Ross reported that one of the country's most respected and reform-minded Catholic leaders, Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee, stood accused of attacking a male graduate student nearly a quarter-century ago, and paying $450,000 in hush money in 1998.

ABC reported that Paul Marcoux, now 54 years old, charged that around 1980, "he was sexually assaulted by the archbishop when he went to him seeking advice on entering the priesthood." Marcoux himself was even more explicit: "He was sitting next to me and then started to try to kiss me and continued to force himself on me and pulled down my trousers, attempted to fondle me. Think of it in terms of date rape." The story was incendiary. Within hours, Archbishop Weakland -- the leading voice within the American Catholic hierarchy for democratization, acceptance of gays and other social-justice reforms -- had accelerated his planned retirement. It seemed the logical next chapter in a season of church scandal.


But who was really the victim this time? A close look at the Weakland case suggests a story far different from ABC's simple "date rape" report -- and an accuser with far less credibility than suggested on "Good Morning America" and in subsequent national media reports. Indeed, the real story behind Weakland's resignation suggests that the hard work of documenting the church's coverup of clerical pedophilia risks being derailed by personal vendettas and gay-bashing.

The story really begins with what ABC's viewers -- and later readers of the New York Times, which put Paul Marcoux's charges on the front page -- were never told. They did not hear, for instance, that questions have arisen about accuser Marcoux's credibility. One small but telling example: Marcoux recently told Milwaukee reporters that he did "undergraduate work" at Boston College, the prestigious Jesuit institution. But a call to the B.C. registrar's office reveals that Marcoux's "undergraduate work" consisted of a single summer class taken in 1975.

Reporters for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found similar problems with Marcoux's credibility. "Marcoux sometimes exaggerates," the paper reported in Friday's editions. It quoted an e-mail message from him describing his "friendship" with a California academic who has written about victims of abuse. But the professor said Marcoux "was never anything more than a vague acquaintance." So unreliable was Marcoux -- reneging on agreements to document his charges -- that the Journal Sentinel, which had been working on the story for weeks, had killed the story until Marcoux appeared on ABC.


ABC's viewers did not learn, either, that whatever happened between Weakland and Marcoux, the two enjoyed a lengthy and intimate relationship. A long and agonized 1980 letter by Weakland to Marcoux describes a planned vacation on Nantucket, a trip to Boston, and conflict over Marcoux's involvement with another man named Don. In the letter -- excerpted by the New York Times but most revealing and moving if read in full on the Journal Sentinel or Times Web sites -- Weakland describes his decision to turn away from Marcoux and back to celibacy as "the greatest renunciations" in his life as a priest. In the letter, the archbishop cautions Marcoux against pursuing a plan to combine psychodrama therapy and religious counseling. The distress evident in Weakland's efforts to be fair and tolerant toward Marcoux's ideas -- even giving the younger man his entire personal savings of $14,000 -- reflects his apprehension about finding himself bankrolling a pop-therapy scheme dressed in clerical robes.

ABC viewers also never learned that Marcoux spent decades in perpetual financial crisis: He was an inveterate houseguest of the sort that makes Kato Kaelin look like a standard-bearer for the Protestant work ethic. Archbishop Weakland's anguished letter in 1980 worries explicitly and deeply about Marcoux's repeated demands for money and his inability to manage his own finances: "Your anger was evident that I couldn't play the great patron ... In all truth I do not see how you could possibly earn the kind of money you foresee, enough to live in the style you are accustomed to ... I am baffled by your handling of money."

This is no one-time lovers' quarrel. The Journal Sentinel reported that 22 years later the same problems were evident: Marcoux had stayed with a succession of friends for years, and his own sister told the paper that in four years' time he had burned through the entire out-of-court settlement from Weakland. What emerges is not the tale of a victim but the story of a sponge.


Weakland, who had already submitted to a planned mandatory retirement, decided to step aside and apologize -- not for his relationship with Marcoux, but for eventually settling his personal affairs at the expense of the archdiocese. Weakland says he will not breach the settlement's confidentiality agreement. So whatever happened in private between Weakland and Marcoux, the public outcome is clear. The country and the Catholic Church have lost a consistently dignified and passionate activist for women's equality within the church and for economic equality in the nation. What Marcoux may have gained is a matter of speculation. But the public reality is that Archbishop Weakland was blackmailed, and ultimately punished, for being gay.

What's clear is that the meticulous reporting of sexual abuse by the Boston Globe -- swinging a wrecking ball through a wall of silence behind which the cries of the innocent were smothered lest they interfere with business as usual -- is in danger of giving way to sweeping persecution of gay priests. The Marcoux affair, and the slipshod reporting of his accusations by ABC, suggest it's open season.

Bruce Shapiro

Bruce Shapiro is national correspondent for Salon News.

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Margaret Spillane

Margaret Spillane writes frequently about politics and culture.

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