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the quality of mercy, strained

By Diogenes (articles ) | Sep 02, 2006

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee has agreed to pay $8.25 million of a $16.65 million settlement with ten abuse victims of Fr. Siegfried Widera, who committed suicide in 2003. Known to have abused boys in Wisconsin, Widera was slime-lined to the Diocese of Orange, where he continued to groom and molest male victims. OTR commented on the situation in 2004, when the California Court of Appeal ruled that the Milwaukee Archdiocese was "subject to specific personal jurisdiction in California." An excerpt from the 2004 ruling:

The Milwaukee Archdiocese did not know who [plaintiff] was and could not have expressly aimed its conduct at him. However, we do not believe the effects test required the Milwaukee Archdiocese to know the identities of Widera's future victims. This is not a situation, as in Pavlovich, where the defendant's conduct could harm any of a number of industries and businesses, some of which might be centered in California. The nature of the Milwaukee Archdiocese's conduct -- sending a pedophile priest directly into California -- meant the Milwaukee Archdiocese's conduct would harm California residents. In other words, the Milwaukee Archdiocese's conduct targeted a known group of California residents -- boys, specifically, Roman Catholic boys -- as a means of getting Widera out of the Milwaukee Archdiocese. Such targeting is, we believe, sufficiently individualized to satisfy due process because the Milwaukee Archdiocese could reasonably anticipate being haled into court in California.

In the meantime, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee offered the victims 8 million persuasive reasons why going to court wasn't so necessary after all. SNAP's Peter Isely, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, views the recent settlement

as a way for the archdiocese to avoid having retired Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland have to reveal more details about his actions and those of other church officials in depositions or courtroom testimony if the cases had gone to trial.

This seems to be a stretch. Though Weakland was archbishop when Widera was formally excardinated from Milwaukee and incardinated into Orange, the move was effected in 1976 by Weakland's predecessor, Archbishop William Cousins, who wrote a shrewd and deceptive letter to Orange, in which he claimed Widera had "done good work for the Archdiocese," but that "in his earlier years there had been a moral problem having to do with a boy in school." (The DA who successfully prosecuted Widera asked for five years in prison upon conviction, indicating a pretty substantial "problem"; instead W. got four years probation.) Cousins then covered his tail by advising Orange to interview Widera before buying the goods, sanctimoniously concluding, "I would like to show fraternal charity to a fellow priest but I cannot be virtuous at the expense of a fellow bishop."

Dry the starting tear, folks. There's a certain apt irony in the fact that, ten boys and $16 million later, the Archbishop Cousins Catholic Center will be sold to help pay Widera's buggery bill -- but then, whose cash built the Center in the first place? It appears no bishops were harmed in paying for Cousins's virtue.

The Bishop Accountability website has some interesting documentation on Widera, including a PDF file of his Personal History from the notorious and now defunct Servants of the Paraclete clinic in New Mexico. In Widera's first-person narrative, I found the following line particularly striking:

My next assignment was to a pastor who was very autocratic. I was there for a year. I was doing pretty well, when I got to know some boys. It started innocently enough, but after a while a complaint was filed against me and I was arrested.

Notice how his mind leaps the moral chasm. "It started innocently enough, but after a while ..." I took advantage of them? No. I succumbed to lust? No. I lost control and broke my vows? No. "After a while, a complaint was filed against me." The impersonal passive. It's the legal intrusion that sticks with him. The human choices and feelings involved -- Widera's own, the victim's, the victim's family's -- simply don't exist.

As it happens notes survive from the time of the complaint giving the "autocratic" pastor's contemporaneous perspective on Fr. Widera. From this 1973 document it's clear that Widera's lapse was no fluke. We might profitably contrast Archbishop Cousins's "fraternal charity to a fellow priest" with the approach one un-named layman took to Widera's recreational activities:

A male grade school teacher saw Fr. Siegfried [Widera] fooling around with the boys of another teacher. He said to Father that if he fooled around in the same way with his students, he would punch Father in the face.

Sure, sure, violence begets violence, as Bishop Sklba reminds us, but I can't help wondering who, among the several fathers involved, actually demonstrated some paternal charity toward the vulnerable ...

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Clorox - Sep. 02, 2006 10:39 AM ET USA

    Every time I think about how the bishops walked away with impunity, I suffer a bout of Tourette's Syndrome.

  • Posted by: - Sep. 02, 2006 10:22 AM ET USA

    As a Catholic-weblog-addict I keep reading these accounts of priestly sexual abuse and bishop malfeasance and shudder! I never cease to be shocked by these cases! I keep wondering about the state of these men's souls - do they even believe in God? Was there no mention of Him in seminary? Do they not fear God's judgement? Didn't they mention that place called HELL in their formation? Do they not fear going there?? The only thing that makes any sense in that they are atheists-good times w/parish $

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