Nothing but the truth

By A U.S. Catholic interview| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Vatican
Judge Anne M. Burke reviewed her years monitoring the U.S. church's response to the clergy sex abuse crisis.

As the wife of a veteran Chicago alderman, Judge Anne M. Burke has seen her share of political intrigue up close. But not even Chicago politics, she says, adequately prepared her for the "medieval, certainly Byzantine machinations" she encountered during the two and a half years she served on the National Review Board.

The U.S. bishops appointed this 13-member board of lay Catholics at the height of the clergy sex abuse crisis to oversee their compliance with the reforms they had pledged to institute. But many of the bishops, it seems, were surprised when the board took its job seriously and went to work. Accustomed to having laypeople only give them advice they could choose to follow or ignore, some bishops were taken aback when the board publicly called them to task for foot-dragging or for efforts to obstruct or circumvent agreed-upon processes.

As the board's interim chair--following former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating's resignation in June 2003--Burke spoke out forcefully when several bishops tried to postpone the second nationwide audit of diocesan compliance and when, contrary to previous commitments, they tried to appoint a woman religious to the lay board.

While facing opposition from some of the bishops, Burke, who left the board in November 2004, also has won fans in their ranks. One bishop recently even compared her to St. Catherine of Siena, the 14th-century saint known for pleading with Pope Gregory XI to reform the clergy.

Burke is a judge of the Appellate Court of Illinois in Chicago [2010 update: She is now an Illinois Supreme Court Justice] and has been an advocate for child welfare for many years. In 1968 she organized the first-ever Special Olympics, and, before joining the appellate court, she served as the Illinois governor's Special Counsel for Child Welfare Services.

You've said you used to be more of a "passive Catholic" but have come to realize that we can't afford to be passive Catholics anymore. What do you mean by that?

What I mean by "passive Catholic" is that we were all-those of us in a certain age group anyway-brought up to expect that the pope, our bishop, and our pastor told us what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. My job was just to agree to it, and I didn't see any reason not to.

I was active in many charitable organizations, and most of them were Catholic. But I primarily viewed being a good Catholic as going to church every Sunday and raising my children Catholic. I think most of my friends were the same way. If we were asked, we'd "help out" at church, for example with a Mardi Gras or at bingo or at the soup kitchen, but we weren't sufficiently actively engaged in our church.

Around the country today there are pockets of a different kind of Catholicism, where people want to actively take part in the church's decision-making. Whether it's Call to Action, Voice of the Faithful, or other groups, I think we all should have a voice in the church and have an opportunity to contribute our ideas about how to make it better.

I think that passivity on the part of us laypeople contributed to the crisis of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy. It was happening right under our noses the whole time, but since we weren't involved, we didn't see it and those who did see it didn't know what to do about it.

Having served on the National Review Board, I feel I have to speak out about what I know. I don't like what I know, and I'm very upset about it. As a result, I could never be as passive a Catholic as I was before. I don't think anybody could have been prepared for what we've had to go through for the past 30 months.

Was what you learned disillusioning?

First of all, let me acknowledge that the bishops really took an extraordinary risk when they enacted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People at their meeting two and a half years ago in Dallas. But I don't think they thought through what its implementation would mean for them.

The charter is a wonderful document-a Rosetta stone or Magna Carta if you will. It has some flaws because it was written in haste, and it may need to be reviewed and its language tweaked, but it is a great document. It says what bishops should have agreed to a long time ago: that laypeople should oversee an audit to make sure our dioceses are safe.

When we were charged with overseeing the newly formed Office of Child and Youth Protection, that included three specific tasks: that "safe environment" programs were to be put in place in each diocese, that a compliance audit was to be done in each diocese, and that we were to present to the bishops a public annual report on the compliance of each diocese with the provisions of the charter. In effect that meant we were overseeing what the bishops were doing, and I don't think they realized that until we started our work.

Many bishops seemed to have major second thoughts about the process because from the beginning we had trouble getting them to work with us. They'd tell us that they didn't like the kind of audit we were planning or that the language wasn't canonically correct. Granted, it's not a canonical document, but it's not meant to be. It's just a compliance audit.

When the auditors traveled around the country to conduct the audit with different bishops, it was often difficult to get the bishops to answer their questions. That was quite disturbing to us because they had been the ones who had asked to have the audit done. But I don't think many of them understood what they had voted for.

I know that in their heart of hearts, yes, the bishops want children safe, but not at the expense of other things.

Where did the bishops' resistance come from?

I think what happened was that, from day one, the bishops and our board never agreed on what we were to do. And it is hard when you're coming out of the gate on two different paths. Eventually they realized they had created a board of prominent and respected laypeople, had given us a job to do, and we were now going to do it without their control.

Generally when bishops have a board, it's to help them in an advisory capacity. While we report to the bishops and are in a sense advisory, the charter also asked us to do something that had a little meat to it.

One bishop was even quoted as saying that your board would be the "downfall of the church."

We did hear that from one bishop during a meeting with our board, although he later told me that he didn't really mean it. At the time it was very discouraging. It was too bad that some bishops felt this way because it seemed to signal that they saw no light at the end of the tunnel. By contrast I really look at this process as an opportunity for something positive to come out of this crisis. Our work is not the downfall of the Catholic Church.
I think what some were nervous about-and to some degree understandably so-were the reports that were still forthcoming then: the audit, the John Jay study, and our board's report. They were scared about what was going to be revealed in those reports. We were all nervous about that.

But aren't you scared when you go to Confession, too? You feel sad about sins you have committed and sad about things you may have failed to do. But you have to get over it. You get it all out in Confession, and then you feel better.

I think a lot of the animosity toward us came from the fact that bishops were frustrated because of their lack of control. Here was a group of laypeople that had information that they didn't have.

How did you go about setting the agenda for the work of the board?

The bishops' conference didn't give us very specific directions. So when we first met, we looked at what the charter asked us to do, went to work, and started to make decisions.

We decided that we had to have a "Chinese wall" between the bishops and us. That's a term that means you have to keep the different sides apart. We had enough people saying that because we were appointed by the bishops, we were just rubber-stamping their decisions. That was not true at all.

But we also needed to be independent from advocacy groups like Voice of the Faithful or Call to Action or SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests). We couldn't be seen as being beholden to a group's agenda.

We conducted a national search for the head of the newly created Office of Child and Youth Protection. We wanted a good Catholic with a strong law-enforcement background and found that in Kathleen McChesney. We submitted her name to the bishops, and they appointed her. She, too, just started to do her work, and we worked very well together.

At the same time we set up subcommittees on the research studies. For the statistical analysis we settled on a secular university, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. Then when we looked at commissioning the study that was supposed to get at the causes and context of the clergy sex-abuse crisis, we found we really didn't have enough information. Bob Bennett said, "When you have a court case, what do you do? You do depositions."

That's how we decided to interview more than 100 people. We felt we as a board needed to be informed about the culture that allowed this abuse to happen and the context in which it happened. So we talked to a broad range of people-from offenders to victims; from psychiatrists to journalists; from left to right; from cardinals to priests, women religious, and laypeople; Catholics and non-Catholics.

As we were collecting this information, we realized that the National Review Board really had not been given a voice. We weren't asked to give a report. But we felt we needed to capture what we were learning. That's when we decided to do the first part of the "causes and context" report as our own board report.

We also felt that based on the information we learned we had to make some recommendations-nonscientific and preliminary as they might be.

What is your own conclusion about the primary causes of the sex-abuse crisis?

Of course, the primary cause is the criminal sexual assault of minors by Roman Catholic clergy. But the ecclesial mismanagement and the omissions of our church leaders were crimes as well. Too many bishops really did not proceed in a common-sense way.

It doesn't take a lawyer to figure out that when somebody has committed a crime, you've got to turn them in. We all know that. In fact, the church taught us that. That in itself is mind-boggling: Here we were taught as children what to do-how to be good, moral, ethical people, and that if you see something bad, you've got to tell your mom and dad or call the police-we were trained to do that by the very people who completely failed to do that themselves.

But why did they fail to do that?

The reasons included fear of litigation, fear of scandal, wanting to protect their priests, and some of it, I think, was just plain incompetence. When asked about it, they'll say, "Well, I relied on the doctors, I relied on the lawyers." Our response to that is: But you were the decision-maker. I can go to a doctor and then to another one to get a second opinion and to a third for yet a different one, but I still have to make the decision which doctor I'm going to choose.

When you have a crime confronting you and a psychiatrist says the perpetrator will be OK for ministry, you still have to go back to the crime itself. That priest might or might not be helped at some point, but why didn't you call the police on this horrible crime you knew about? They have no answer for that. No answer.

The people you interviewed gave you a broad range of answers on underlying issues: homosexuality, the "culture of dissent," celibacy, church governance, psychological issues, seminary formation.

What we say is that celibacy or homosexuality are not the causes of the crisis, but they may very well be major contributing factors. And that's why a second, much more in-depth study has to be done. It's probably a combination of a number of those things.

Criminal sexual assault against minors really is a major national health crisis and is not limited to the church. Every day we read about another sexual assault against a child. It's pervasive in the children's cases here in my court, and so much of it is still unreported.

We still need to study a lot more about all three aspects: the offender, the victim, and the environment. Within that triangle there are many different profiles for the offender, many profiles for the victim, and the environment generally involves some sort of authority or control relationship of a teacher, coach, or priest working with a minor.

This next in-depth study will provide a great service to the larger society. Across the board all kinds of people are looking for this work to be done.

Is that kind of study going to happen for sure?

It's going to be as sure as we laity make it, and that puts the responsibility back on the laity again. The bishops said they were going to do it, but we've got to ensure that they do it. We've moved this process along this far in spite of their foot-dragging.

Many bishops don't want to do this study because they're going to have to give offenders' names to the researchers and provide cooperation. And it's going to cost money.

From the preliminary interviews we have conducted with research institutions, we estimate it would take $3 million to $4 million over three to four years. There are many Catholic laypeople and organizations who would be happy to help with the funding, but I don't want them to. The bishops said they were going to do it, so they should. Otherwise they won't have a vested interest in this.

When you encountered the kind of "foot-dragging" you mentioned, what leverage did you have other than public pressure?

None. But that pressure is powerful. Just look at what the Boston laity did to remove Cardinal Bernard Law. It is very powerful, and that's also why the press is so important.

When it became necessary we were very vocal. We're a policy-making board, but we also weren't afraid to confront individual bishops when they said or did something that was in violation of what we believed the charter said.

For instance, New York's Cardinal Edward Egan tried to keep the board from holding a meeting in New York. But we went ahead anyway, even though he refused to say Mass for us, as did Archbishop Eusebius Beltran in Oklahoma. But in those cases we spoke out publicly. There were other battles that we didn't speak out about, but our job wasn't to be a prosecutorial board, and it still isn't.

We were very clear in our report about the need for accountability among bishops and proposed greater use of the metropolitan bishop's office for "fraternal correction." [A "metropolitan bishop" is an archbishop who has some authority over the other bishops in his province.] In fact, that idea was later picked up by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in a letter to every bishop in the United States. We had met with him in Rome in January. Rome listened.

There were a number of other bishops who shielded priests who were repeat offenders. Why aren't they being made to resign?

I think that comes back to passive Catholicism: Why do we let them hang on? The laity in Boston did something about it. Others could do that as well.

On the National Review Board we're not in a position to hold anybody accountable except in the public realm on policy issues. If the people in the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska don't mind that Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz refused to participate in the John Jay study and threatened to sue the National Review Board, then that's what they want. There's nothing I can do about it.

But even when they organize, ultimately laypeople don't have the power to tell their bishop, "You're fired."

No, they don't have the power to say that, but in these dioceses the bishop has to know that he's not trusted and the laity aren't going to respect him.

One bishop told our board last summer (and I think he's right): "You're wasting your energy and frustration on trying to change something that's not capable of changing. You can't teach an old dog new tricks, so you may need to free yourself of that frustration and find other areas in which you can be effective."

That's why I keep saying, yes, there needs to be accountability, but is that our ultimate goal here? Sure, it would probably still be good for a few more bishops to step down, but that may not happen. In a way the accountability issue takes care of itself by the loss of that bishop's reputation and authority. What's really important is that we go forward and not let it happen again.

We also need to hold up as models the good pastors and bishops like Bishop John D'Arcy in Fort Wayne. He's been a real hero in all of this. Had they listened to him early on in Boston, hundreds of children would not have been abused. He knew right from wrong, and as a result they shipped him out of Boston.

One major piece of the response to the crisis has been the zero tolerance policy, which was controversial from the beginning and is again being criticized. What will be happening with that policy?

Due process is important, and zero tolerance is very difficult. We dealt with it as a board, and I remain convinced that it's the right thing for the present time.

It's difficult because one penalty doesn't fit all, but in the face of the inability of too many bishops to make the right decisions we have to have it. If it were left up to the bishop to make the call, I think eventually we'd end up in the same mess we were in before.

Has your serving on the board affected your faith at all?

I'm more invigorated about my faith. It was really a kind of renewal for me-and at my age I'm surprised I can renew anything.

Surely this has not been the first big crisis the church has gone through. This one just happens to be in our lifetime. In a way it's a miracle that the church has survived for all these years, but the reason it has is because through the ages concerned people stepped up and did what needed to be done.

The Holy Spirit must have had a hand in getting this mess out in the open, forcing us to deal with it and do something about it. It could not go on with all this suffering.

Despite your work on the board having been such a struggle, did you also see signs of hope?

I am encouraged because this is a defining time in the Catholic Church. It's been a terrible time, but I believe good will come out of this. Even just the existence of this lay review board has been an unbelievable sign of hope. Did you think the bishops would ever have such a substantive lay board? I believe that was the work of the Holy Spirit.

None of us on the board knew each other before, but we became like family. Individually and collectively these people are outstanding. There is still more to be done in monitoring the bishops, making sure they follow through with the recommendations, but to me the exciting good news has been this lay board-the great people and the work we did together.

I think this time is an opportunity for us all to start using the talents of Catholic laypeople in the United States, not just for this issue, but all across the life of our church, particularly in our local parishes.

It's one thing to be wrestling with the bishops nationally, but that's not where it counts. It's about getting our young people involved through service, spirituality, and more ethical living. That's what will revitalize the Catholic Church.

This article appeared in the January 2005 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 70, No. 1, pages 12-17).