Former Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland apologized Friday and begged for forgiveness for the scandal caused by a $450,000 settlement with a man who accused him of sexual assault.
Speaking at a prayer service, Weakland acknowledged an "inappropriate relationship" decades ago with a 30-year-old theology student. He said he agreed to the settlement because he feared bringing embarrassment to himself and the church.
In hindsight, Weakland said, he understood how it could appear to be "hush money."
"I apologize to all the faithful of the archdiocese, which I love so much, to all its people and clergy for the scandal that has occurred because of my sinfulness," Weakland said during the 20-minute service at the Mater Christi Chapel in suburban Milwaukee. It was the first time he has spoken publicly about the settlement.
The Milwaukee Archdiocese in 1998 paid the settlement to Paul Marcoux, who was a student at Marquette University when he accused Weakland of sexually assaulting him in 1979. Weakland has denied ever abusing anyone.
Since the clergy sex-abuse crisis erupted in January, Weakland is the highest-ranking U.S. cleric to acknowledge settling a sexual misconduct allegation against him.
Weakland said Friday that he understood the settlement to be compensation for Marcoux, who claimed that the former archbishop had interfered with his ability to earn income. He said he agreed to the settlement rather than spend money fighting the claim.
"One of my fears in not accepting the settlement was the prospect of scandal and embarrassment for myself and for the church," Weakland said. "For that lack of courage, I apologize."
The former archbishop also apologized to Marcoux "for any harm done him."
Marcoux, now 54, couldn't be reached for comment Friday night. He has said he was drunk when Weakland tried to assault him in 1979, adding that he did not go to the police because two priests advised against it.
Weakland's 25-year tenure ended when the Vatican accepted his resignation May 24, a day after he acknowledged paying the settlement. He reached the mandatory retirement age of 75 in April.
"People who are concerned about me ask how I feel at this moment. The best nouns to describe those feelings would be remorse, contrition, shame and emptiness," Weakland said Friday.
The archdiocese said the $450,000 came from its real estate and property fund, which has been used since 1995 for lawsuit settlements, including those dealing with pedophile priests.
Weakland said last week that his earnings from speeches more than covered any settlement amount, but he said Friday he had been told that was not the case.
"In my remaining years, I will continue to contribute to the archdiocese whatever I can, and, of course, the archdiocese will receive whatever effects I own on my death," he said.
After his speech, the audience stood and applauded for 90 seconds as Weakland knelt before the altar, his back to them.
Dick Noll, 77, of Milwaukee, said he cried as he listened. "It was to the point and honest." Weakland started an innovative program 12 years ago giving support to priest abuse victims and treatment for offenders.
This spring he accepted the recommendation of a commission he appointed that the church adopt a zero-tolerance policy against sexual abuse by priests.
Patricia Nuyttens, 51, said before the service that she thought Weakland was apologizing only because of media coverage of his case. "He lied to us. He cheated us." As she spoke, 80-year-old Jean Iczkowski interrupted: "It is very nice to forgive people."