If all the scandal that had ever plagued the Archdiocese of Milwaukee over its 175-year history were compared to a hurricane, there can be little doubt which of those 175 years would serve as the storm’s eye. 

It was only days into January 2002 that the Boston Globe’s coverage of the sexual abuse crisis in the Archdiocese of Boston shone a national spotlight on the pattern of covering up, ignoring or dismissing allegations of sexual abuse of minors at the hands of priests which had existed for years in the American Catholic Church.

It was a story that would dominate headlines in every diocese in the country, as the publicity empowered abuse survivors to speak out about their own abuse, after sometimes decades of silence and shame.

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee was no different. In the early months of 2002, dozens of new allegations were made against priests, the majority of whom were already known to the archdiocese as offenders. For comparison, the previous year had seen about one report per month.

In late March, a task force was convened to review archdiocesan policies and protocols involved in the handling of reports of sexual abuse by clergy. Called the Eisenberg Commission, after its leader, the late Marquette University Law School Dean Howard Eisenberg, the five-person task force also reviewed the cases of six priests still active in ministry in the archdiocese despite substantiated allegations made against them.

Formal policies dictating the handling of sexual abuse allegations were created in most dioceses throughout the country between 1985 and 1995. Discussion of the issue began at meetings of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in the 1980s. Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland would later say in a 2008 deposition that the 1985 USCCB Spring Assembly in Collegeville, Indiana, was the first time he realized the true scope of the sexual abuse issue in the American Catholic Church. At that meeting, the crisis was discussed, but no national plan was adopted.

A Code of Ethical Standards for priests and parish employees in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee had been drawn up in 1994, clearly defining behavioral expectations for Church personnel. Project Benjamin, a formal initiative of outreach and support for abuse victims and their families, had been launched in 1989. However, that very office was criticized by some in 2002 for being too closely aligned with the archdiocese and its interests. There was also public outrage over the revelation that in many cases a priest with credible accusations against him was allowed to continue in active ministry following counseling or other intervention.

Listening sessions staged at various parishes throughout southeastern Wisconsin in May 2002 registered the anger of the Catholic faithful, as hundreds of attendees expressed disappointment and disillusionment with a perceived lack of transparency on the part of the archdiocese.

The media frenzy reached fever pitch in the end of May, when former theology student Paul Marcoux appeared on “Good Morning America” accusing Archbishop Weakland of date rape 20 years earlier. Marcoux also revealed that he had been paid a $450,000 settlement from the archdiocese in 1998. Archbishop Weakland acknowledged the homosexual affair, but denied sexual assault; his resignation, tendered several months before on the occasion of his 75th birthday, was immediately accepted by the Vatican upon the breaking of the Marcoux story.

“Our problem in Milwaukee at the moment is that we bear the accumulated and sharply focused pain of the entire country,” wrote Bishop Richard Sklba in the June 6, 2002, issue of the Catholic Herald — the first since Archbishop Weakland’s resignation was accepted. “All the issues, which have been released like vapors, seem to bruise our souls and poison our atmosphere.”

Implementing changes

In June 2002, the USCCB adopted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. Dubbed the “Dallas Charter,” these procedures mandated the permanent removal from active ministry of any priest with a credible allegation of sexual abuse of a minor. The Charter also required criminal background checks for all adults, including clergy, who work with children and youth, and the implementation of educational programs for both adults and children for the prevention of child sexual abuse.

Here in Milwaukee, the Eisenberg Commission submitted its final report in September 2002. It recommended that the archdiocese make its procedures more accessible to the public and emphasize its existing policy of immediate reporting of abuse to civil authorities.

In 2004, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who was named as Archbishop Weakland’s successor at the end of June 2002, requested a complete review of every diocesan priest’s file to make sure no allegations of clergy sexual abuse of a minor had gone undiscovered or unreported. This review was completed by an outside forensic audit team. Annually, the archdiocese has participated in an audit of its safe environment practices — including parish and school visits — by an outside agency and has been found to be compliant with standards each year.

In July 2004, the name of every priest with a substantiated allegation of sexual abuse of a minor was made public and posted to the archdiocesan website.

Project Benjamin ultimately morphed into what is now the Community Advisory Board, a body that meets quarterly to provide the archbishop with input on policies and procedures relating to sexual abuse. Members include representatives of the Catholic laity, law enforcement, abuse survivors and social workers.

Since 2002, no prior review of intake reports concerning sexual abuse of a minor by a priest or deacon is done by archdiocesan personnel to determine if the case can be prosecuted. Every intake report involving a priest or deacon still alive is sent to the appropriate district attorney for review.

The legacy of 2002, in many ways, is still a developing story. It was almost a decade later that, despite a mediation system set up to give abuse survivors a vehicle for telling their stories and receiving compensation, the archdiocese had to file for bankruptcy in the face of mounting lawsuits over its handling of abuse cases. Other, far more tragic consequences are less easily articulated. Archbishop Weakland acknowledged in his 2002 speech at the Mater Christi Chapel that “now and into the future, I worry about those whose faith may be shaken by my acts.”

Archbishop Timothy Dolan summed up the year in a column for the Catholic Herald’s last issue of December 2002. It was entitled “Light and darkness.”

“In many ways, this has been a year of darkness for the church: scandal, sin, shock, suspicion, cynicism, fear, discouragement, disappointment — a year of darkness,” he wrote. “You (the faithful) have had to bear the brunt of it.”

The cover art for that final issue of the year was the image of Madonna and Child by Fra Angelico.

“Focus on that baby,” wrote the archbishop. “Look in his eyes; smile back at him … no wonder God sent us a baby as the light of the world. What better way to change us.”