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Justice Burke Says Lay People Only Should Lead Clergy Sex Abuse Panels


When the sole clergy abuse survivor on an international papal commission resigned in protest recently, citing resistance by Vatican officials to reform, the protest didn’t surprise Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke.

Burke, who is from Chicago, served on the National Review Board that investigated allegations of clergy sexual abuse in the U.S. from 2002 to 2004. The board, which she also chaired, oversaw church compliance with reforms called for under the Catholic Church’s Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

“Why would you do something so drastic as step down? It is because you have been so frustrated,” Burke said in an interview on GLT’s “Sound Ideas.”

Burke was responding to the resignation earlier this month of Marie Collins of Ireland, the only clergy abuse survivor serving on the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

Collins cited a “lack of cooperation” on the part of the Roman curia, or bureaucracy, to address the issues of clergy abuse. Collins reportedly was concerned that Vatican officials weren’t responding to letters from sex abuse victims, and were blocking efforts to censure bishops who failed to respond adequately to abuse allegations.

Burke has a message for Vatican officials: all boards or commissions overseeing allegations of sexual abuse in the church should include lay members only.

Collins’ complaints of resistance by the church hierarchy, Burke said, “mirror” concerns she and other members of the National Review Board raised in the early years of the abuse scandal.  “The whole thing spoke to me of ‘nothing’s changed,’” Burke said.

Burke said she was not opposed to members of the church hierarchy serving as liaisons to sex abuse review boards, but that decision-making should rest with lay members who have the independence to investigate and issue findings and recommendations.

“Until the trust is returned that the bishops will do the right thing, these same kinds of things will happen if you have clergy in charge,” Burke said.

The National Review Board that Burke served on in the U.S, had no clergy members.

“We wanted the lay people to trust us, to trust that we represented them and had their interests at heart and would make recommendations based on our perceptions,” Burke said. The review board also enlisted the John Jay College of Criminal Justice  for independent help with its investigations.

Pope Francis appointed the Pontifical Commission in 2014 to address clergy abuse allegations worldwide. The Pope said bishops who failed to respond adequately to abuse cases would not escape censure.

Burke praised the Pope for his efforts to draw attention internationally to the problem of sex abuse, and to focus on the key role bishops have in addressing allegations.

“Pope Francis is doing the right thing and sending a message out, but he needs disciples, whether lay disciples, or cardinals or bishops or priests in the world, to really engage his mission to protect children. He clearly loves children. He clearly understands, but trying to find the right disciples is a very difficult thing. I think it will happen if he continues trying to find the right people around the world. That is hope in itself.”

Credit Illinois Supreme Court
Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke served as chair of the National Review Board overseeing clergy sexual abuse in the U.s.

Burke said she did not intend to make a sweeping condemnation of the hierarchy, but noted that some bishops have moved more quickly than others to address survivors’ concerns.

She praised Cardinal Blase Cupich of her home archdiocese of Chicago, whom she said, “is doing great things. He has rekindled my hope at least for my own archdiocese … When you are trying to change a bureaucracy and a culture of 2,000 years, it’s difficult.”

Burke said she was particularly disturbed by Collins’ assertion that bishops weren’t responding to letters sent by alleged victims.

“I would think a shepherd, which is a bishop, would be trying to engage people by responding even to someone who in their mind is allegedly a victim, and try and comfort them, respond to them, give them hope and trust. That would be a normal, human reaction,” she said.

She said church officials should not have to be prompted to express compassion for abuse survivors, and that those members who are not responsive should be removed from the papal commission.

“How do you tell somebody to feel sorry for someone else, or have compassion or empathy?” Burke asked. “They should know that already. If you have to tell somebody to respond to someone who is hurting, that is unconscionable. They should be removed. This is not what our church is about,” Burke said.

Collins is the second clergy abuse survivor to leave the Pontifical Commission in less than a year. Peter Saunders, a survivor from the United Kingdom, who was also critical of Vatican officials, was asked by his fellow commission members last year take a “leave of absence” from the panel.

In a statement, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, the head of the pontifical commission, thanked Collins for “the extraordinary contributions she has made as a founding member of the commission.”

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