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Wis. Archbishop Kept Silent on Predator Priest

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 14, 2002


MILWAUKEE, April 13 -- An archbishop who established a model program for handling sexual abuse by clergy transferred a priest who was a known sex offender from one parish to another in 1979 and did not remove him until 1992, documents unsealed by a judge here show.

Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland, head of Milwaukee's Roman Catholic archdiocese, said in a sworn deposition that he "didn't think it should be divulged" to the new parish that the priest had molested two children in his previous assignment.

Weakland is widely considered one of the church's most liberal leaders on economic and social issues. Fourteen years ago, he established a program that has been lauded as an example of how dioceses should reach out to victims and swiftly deal with perpetrators of sexual abuse.

Although almost all of America's 178 dioceses have faced lawsuits over priestly child abuse, only in a few cases have direct knowledge and secrecy been shown at the highest levels -- among the archbishops and cardinals who head the nation's largest Catholic communities.

The most embattled is Boston's Cardinal Bernard F. Law, who has acknowledged moving a serial pedophile from parish to parish and is resisting calls to step down. Like Law, Weakland is a senior prelate whose lifetime of pastoral work, preaching and institution-building is being overshadowed by his mishandling of predatory priests.

"Weakland is the most liberal bishop in the country. Law is among the most conservative. But I don't see any difference between them," said Peter Isley, a Milwaukee psychotherapist who was abused by a priest as a teenager. "Liberal or conservative doesn't seem to really matter when it comes to the church covering up these crimes."

According to the documents, which were unsealed this month, the Rev. William J. Effinger admitted to Weakland in 1979 that he had molested a 13-year-old altar boy at St. Francis de Sales Church in Lake Geneva, Wis., on Easter Sunday that year.

The altar boy, Joseph C. Cerniglia, is now a 36-year-old house painter. He said in an interview Friday that Effinger invited him to stay overnight in the rectory "so I wouldn't have to get up so early" for the morning Easter Mass.

Effinger gave him a beer, then said they would have to share the only bed, Cerniglia remembered. "The next thing I knew, he had his hand in my pants and was molesting me violently," he said.

Cerniglia said his mother could tell immediately from his face and body language during the Easter Mass that something was wrong. After the service, he told her what had happened, and his parents first confronted Effinger, then spoke later with Weakland, he said.

The archbishop told the family that "it would be best if we kept this quiet for the kid's sake," Cerniglia said. Weakland also promised that he would never put Effinger in a position to harm children again, Cerniglia said.

According to the unsealed documents, Weakland received a second allegation of child molestation by Effinger around the same time. The priest was sent away for psychological evaluation and treatment. But in the fall of 1979, Weakland appointed Effinger associate pastor of Holy Name Parish in Sheboygan, Wis., where he had daily contact with children at a parochial school. Weakland did not tell the pastor, any of the parishioners or the police that Effinger had committed child abuse in the past.

"Would it be fair to say that that information was deliberately kept from Holy Name Parish?" a lawyer for nine of Effinger's alleged victims asked the archbishop during a 1993 deposition for a lawsuit against the archdiocese.

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

The court papers also show that Effinger was treated for alcoholism four times in the 1980s. Yet Weakland did not remove him until 1992, when a man who had been molested by Effinger as a teenager confronted the priest, recorded the conversation and took the taped confession to the archdiocese and a television station.

Weakland's deposition and thousands of pages of other documents were sealed by court order in 1993, when some of the plaintiffs reached a settlement with the Milwaukee Archdiocese for an undisclosed sum. That same year, Effinger was convicted of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old boy. He died in prison of cancer in 1996.

Milwaukee County Circuit Judge David A. Hansher unsealed the documents at the request of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which has not yet reported on them. But the newspaper has provided steady coverage of the archdiocese's latest troubles, including the removal a week ago of an unnamed priest accused of molesting two teenage boys, one in the mid-1970s and the other in the late 1980s. The 1980s incident may fall within the state's statute of limitations and is under criminal investigation, according to District Attorney E. Michael McCann.

The disclosure in January that Law had moved John Geoghan, a former priest accused of molesting more than 130 children, from parish to parish in Boston set off a scandal that is still reverberating across the country. In many states, bishops have reviewed their files, dismissed clergymen accused of sexually abusing children and turned over those records to prosecutors.

But in Milwaukee, Weakland has announced that he has kept six priests in active ministry despite confirmed or alleged misconduct with minors. He has not made their names public, nor has he given their records to authorities.

Instead, he has appointed a five-member commission, headed by the dean of Marquette University Law School, to review their files and decide if they should be dismissed. "There's a lot of concern because people don't know who the six priests are, where they are, what they have done or what they are doing," said the dean, Howard Eisenberg.

The archdiocese's spokesman, Jerry Topczewski, said that "many of these incidents are old incidents, and the priests have returned to ministry and have lived very productive priestly lives under continuing treatment and monitoring. But we know that in the current climate, a reasonable person might say that's wrong, and so we've asked the commission to review their status along with all of the archdiocese's policies on sexual abuse."

Topczewski said Weakland would not comment on the unsealed court records. "The archbishop has acknowledged that not all the decisions he has made were correct, nor would he always do the same thing today," the spokesman said.

In some interviews, Weakland has made a distinction between pedophiles -- who, he said, are compulsively attracted to children before puberty and are difficult to treat -- and men who have "affairs" with teenagers and are more susceptible to therapy.

Weakland has also appeared to suggest that the teenagers sometimes share the blame.

"What happens so often in those cases is that they go on for a few years and then the boy gets a little older and the perpetrator loses interest. Then is when the squealing comes in and you have to deal with it," he told the Milwaukee Journal in 1994.

Such comments over the years have startled Milwaukee residents, especially coming from a prelate who gained his liberal reputation by questioning whether priests should be allowed to marry, advocating a greater role for women in the church and holding "listening sessions" on issues such as abortion and birth control. Intellectual in manner, Weakland holds a doctorate in musicology from Columbia University and studied piano at the Juilliard School of Music.

Pope John Paul II is expected to accept the archbishop's resignation, which Weakland was required to submit when he turned 75 on April 2. But as long as his resignation is formally pending, Weakland remains archbishop of Milwaukee, which has 685,000 Catholics and 445 diocesan priests. In a letter sent to the clergy but not to the laity last month, he disclosed that over the past 75 years, 35 Milwaukee priests have been accused of sexual misconduct with minors.

He also lamented that "in the public discussion in the press, the voice of those therapists who deal with offenders has not been heard from. Perhaps for this reason, no distinction is made among offenders, but all seem to be presented in the same way."

Like Law in Boston, Weakland has relied on advice from doctors before reassigning sex offenders to priestly duties. In the unsealed deposition, he said he was advised by a psychologist, Leo Graham, that "the risks were minimal" in sending Effinger to a new parish in 1979. Graham gave up his license to practice in Wisconsin in 1987 after a complaint that he had "inappropriate contact" with a female patient, according to state records.

In 1988, Weakland started a program in which the archdiocese hired a psychologist to work with advisers from the community to formulate policies on sexual abuse and reach out to victims. It was one of the first such efforts by a U.S. Catholic diocese.

But the archdiocese also has vigorously defended itself against victims' lawsuits -- including Cerniglia's, which was dismissed on statute of limitations grounds.

Documents in another lawsuit, filed by the archdiocese against its insurance companies when they refused to pay claims arising from sexual abuse by priests, were shredded with Judge Hansher's permission in 1999. The archdiocese wanted to destroy those papers because they showed how much money it had spent on treatment, litigation and settlements related to sex abuse, Hansher said.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company


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