Bishop Weakland is dead.
Weakland, if you’ve allowed yourself to forget, was Archbishop of Milwaukee, and when he received reports of the sexual abuse of children in his care, he shredded them. He allowed abusive priests to continue serving, and he didn’t tell their parishioners or the police what they had done. He referred to abuse victims as “squealers.” And he embezzled nearly half a million dollars of diocesan money to hush up the 20-year-old student who accused him of sexual abuse.
This is what’s known, in some Catholic circles, as “a complicated legacy.”
Can I please make something clear. I wish for the dead bishop mercy. I pray that Jesus came to him and presented him with the clear chance to repent, and that the man grabbed at this lifeline with both hands. I wish for salvation for his soul and for all souls, and the Lord of mercies can work out the details of who deserves what in the afterlife.
But Twitter is not the afterlife. Twitter is full of the walking wounded, people who have personally been abused by priests and then further abused by the Church’s response to that abuse.
Yet on Twitter, I learned of Weakland’s death through a series of tweets that, to my horror, skipped straight over the nightmare he created with his own two hands, and dove directly into an anodyne, self-congratulatory valediction for the man, as if he’d just been any old cleric who had kept himself busy, done his best, and then toddled on to his likely reward. When Catholics responded with anger and disbelief at the omission, the general response was: Well, obviously the sex abuse scandal was terrible, but maybe try harder to be like Jesus, who forgives this stuff.
As if it were all over. As if the sex abuse scandal were in the past, and something that normal, healthy, grounded people had already long since gotten over.
And this is why it’s still not over.
There are people who did not leave the Church when they were abused, and who did not leave the Church when their abuse was covered up. But when the cover-up began to get treated like some kind of overblown, hysterical nonsense for people who simply don’t know how to get on with their lives . . . then they knew they could not stay.
And that’s where we are now. This is where we continue to be: Mired in this all-too-familiar clericalism that tirelessly chides victims for being too sensitive, too unforgiving, too unlike Jesus. It’s still blaming victims and their advocates for the sins of priests — still, still trying to hush and rush past the mention of real, putrid, violent sin, and shield the sinner from consequences. It’s still happening, as we speak, on Twitter and in parish offices and everywhere, in real life. And this is why the scandal is still not over.
Here’s a comparison that Weakland’s defenders will bristle at: The “yes yes, of course he was a sinner, but we must forgive” approach felt very familiar to me, and I suddenly realized what it was. It is precisely the same condescending attitude I hear from some people as they deal with COVID in August of 2022. They aren’t COVID deniers. But they’re COVID-weary, as who wouldn’t be; and so they’ve decided that not only are they done, but everyone else ought to be done, too. And so if they see someone in the supermarket or at church with a mask, they will roll their eyes and say, “You need to get over this, honey.”
But for all they know, the person in the mask may have cancer, or one lung. Or they may have long-haul COVID. They may have contracted a case that disabled them permanently, scarred them from the inside out. Maybe that’s who you’re rolling your eyes at for overreacting.
Listen, as I write, I’m thinking to myself what a miserably dated reference COVID is. I never wanted to have to tag an essay “COVID” ever again. And that’s kind of the point. We’re all so wretchedly weary of having to consider it, pick it up one more time and take it into account, to figure out how it fits in, think about how serious a threat it is. Most of us are not living our lives in a state of panic and crisis. We have learned how to incorporate risk assessment and behavioral changes into our everyday lives, because you do have to live. True for COVID, true for the sex abuse scandal.
But it’s a luxury to be able to feel that way. Some people’s lives have been changed forever. They are permanently disabled, scarred from the inside out, in part because so many people simply did not want to acknowledge what was happening. What are we going to do, deliberately harden our hearts because their problem is old news and now we’re bored?
True for COVID, true for the sex abuse scandal. We may be past the first early era where it was shocking and new, but just because it’s less new now doesn’t mean it’s over; and part of the reason it’s not over is because people who should know better persist in behaving as if it is over. It’s not over. It’s old and exhausting and miserable and tiresome beyond words. But it’s not over. People are still suffering.
I believe we’re only just starting to realize the long-term damage the infection of abuse has had on the body of Christ. What a dreadful thing to look at these walking wounded and say — whether outright, or by omission — Oh honey, aren’t you over that yet?
We still have years and years of garment-rending ahead of us. We’re not done. Not nearly done. If you’re exhausted with other people’s suffering, you need to deal with that in private until you can get your head and heart back in a better place. This scandal is a long haul disease. We’re still not nearly done.
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