Benedictions: The Pope in America

In a post yesterday on the roots of Benedict’s “conversion” on the issue of sexual abuse by priests–and the enabling behavior of many bishops–I recounted the story of Anne Burke, a widely-respected Illinois jurist and former head of the National Review Board of prominent lay Catholics charged with holding the bishops to their word in implementing policies to remove abusers and prevent future cases. Burke and two other board member met with then-Cardinal ratzinger in the Vatican in January 2004 to tell him the real story of the crisis which she said was not being communicated by the bishops to Rome. Ratzinger listened, and followed up. “We named names,” Burke said.
I was interested in Burke’s reaction to the pope’s words to the bishops last night, in which he noted that some of them had “badly handled” the cases–the first public acknowledgment that the bishops themselves contributed to the scandal.
Burke called this morning and her verdict was unequivocal: “I can’t tell you how delighted I was to read what he said,” Burke said. “I think something directly from him was very important.” And she, said it was important that it was done publicly–there were reports that the American bishops wanted to keep last night’s meeting with the bishops closed to media, as they were anticipating that Benedict’s message might have some teeth, on the abuse issue as well as other topics. But the Vatican–reportedly–asked that it be televised. “He had to do that,” Burke said of the public comments. “He”–the pope–“knows,” she said of the bishops’ track record. And now, “He let them know that he knows.” Based on her past meeting with Cardinal Ratzinger, she said, “I knew in my heart of hearts he was going to do something like this.”
Burke has been a forceful voice for greater accountability for bishops, something that has not exactly made her a darling of the hierarchy. She would like to see more done, but thinks Benedict’s statements were the crucial signal.
What disturbed Burke about last night’s talk at a vespers service at the National Shrine was that he was welcomed by the president of the national bishops conference, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who Burke–and many others–considers a scofflaw when it comes to the very policies that George helped implement. Her frustration focuses in particular on the case of a priest, Father Daniel McCormack, a Chicago priest who was accused of molesting children but was not removed from ministry in 2005 despite requests from George’s own lay advisory board to do so.

McCormack subsequently abused other boys. He was arrested Jan. 20, 2006 and in March 2006 Cardinal George publicly apologized for not removing him and for intially indicating he did not know about the case. Yet he faced no sanctions–there are none for bishops who violate the policy known as the charter–and victims, their relatives, and lay leaders like Burke are furious. She is especially angry that George was subsequently elected as leader of the U.S. hierarchy.
(Daniel McCormack eventually pleaded guilty to abusing five boys. He is serving a five-year sentence in prison.)
“It’s outrageous, actually, that he is president of the national bishops confernece,” Burke told me. “”McCormack is a recent case, and Cardinal George did not follow what the bishops said they were going to do.” Burke said that in her January 2004 meeting with then-Cardinal Ratzinger “we told him a lot about George,” so Benedict knew George’s track record when he delivered his remarks last night. “We knew that Cardinal George was disingenuous with us on many occassions. He showed he can’t be trusted.”
But, she insisted, the scandal and her anger are “not about faith. People keep getting that mixed up. It’s just bad administration.” She will be encouraged if Benedict continues to appoint bishops who are better administrators, above all on this issue. The statement by some church leaders that the scandal “is history” is not her takeaway. “It’s not history.”

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