Monday, February 20, 2006

Justice Burke Wins over Cardinal in Skirmish Over Priest Sexual Abuse.

[Another column from The Wanderer, the nation’s oldest national Catholic newspaper]

CHICAGO—I ended last week’s article on this archdiocese’s sex abuse scandal by saying that, while Francis Cardinal George and Illinois Appellate Justice Anne Burke disagree on solutions, Burke could win hands down “in this Democratic town.” She has—and quickly. There is little doubt that new rules will be re-drawn to move near her specifications. The beginnings of reform have come from an unusual source: Burke’s insistence, editorial page clout, media hype which, in this case, may have produced good results.

Last week Justice Burke, an exalted princess of Catholic liberaldom was paired against Cardinal George in a controversy over what the first priority of the archdiocese should be after allegations are made of child sex abuse by priests. At the outset, Cardinal George said, mistakenly as it turned out, that priests are entitled to all civil rights in such accusations “or no one will be safe.” Justice Burke said the Cardinal was wrong: when an allegation is made, the priest should be removed pending the investigation, making the first priority the children.

Cardinal George quickly changed his view in meetings with the parents in the parish where a priest, Fr. Daniel McCormack, was alleged to have acted inappropriately with several boys. The Cardinal’s misstatement was indefensible in the court of public opinion, because no one was saying an allegedly erring priest had to be pilloried or even publicized, just removed and possibly sent to a desk job quietly while investigators study the case. This procedure regularly takes place in secular society including the Chicago Public Schools when teachers are accused.

Early failure of the Cardinal to clarify his remarks produced scorching heat from the media which quickly melted any bureaucratic arguments. The feminist Sun-Times columnist, Michael Sneed, a liberal Catholic flame- thrower, supporter of women priests and close friend of Justice Burke, focused bitter attacks on the Cardinal in a column that is read first by many Chicagoans. Later all of the archdiocese’s auxiliary bishops wrote to the editor of the Sun-Times protesting Sneed’s attacks. More significantly, perhaps, even Jack Higgins, the well-known Sun-Times prize-winning cartoonist, a Catholic, penned two cartoons severely criticizing the prelate. Higgins, the last person to be anti-clerical, is devotedly Catholic, strictly authenticist and courageously candid in his support of pro-life in contrast to the editorial policy of his newspaper. He is a hero to pro-lifers because he fearlessly draws more eloquently than most columnists can write.

Then came television commentaries. On public television, two Catholic women, Mary Anne Ahearn of NBC and Carol Marin of the station and the Sun-Times, were sustained in their criticism (no surprise from Marin, long a vitriolic supporter of women priests but a distinct shock coming from Ahearn, the more conservative of the two). As editorials and letters-to-the-editor flowed, suddenly Cardinal George announced that he had instituted “a complete review of all our archdiocesean policies and procedures surrounding the sexual abuse of minors.” It seems to be initially a victory for Justice Burke. Not that she is beloved by many orthodox Catholics: she is the wife of Alderman Edward Burke, a Democratic king-pin who often single-handedly picks for election many pro-abort Democratic judges in this county where endorsement by Burke is tantamount to election. She runs for the Appellate court as a powerful Democrat.

Tough on alleged erring priests she is, but if she is pro-life, she has been remarkably quiet about it. Two years ago, she was named, rather mysteriously, to the National Review Board set up by the Catholic bishops to draft a schema to deal with priests abusing children. Nor has she explained to The Wanderer who named her or Leon Panetta, Bill Clinton’s pro-abort ex-chief of staff to the panel.

But to her credit notwithstanding, when she became acting chairman of the group, Justice Burke became a tough proponent of removing priests from their ministries at first hint of accusation against them in an effort to protect the children first. This brought her into controversy with those bishops who wished to shield accused priests from accusations that might not be provable. She has said that Cardinal George was one of that number.

Now, in calling for a complete review of archdiocesean policies concerning the sexual abuse of minors, the Cardinal has tacitly acknowledged that Justice Burke has been right. In his message to archdiocesean employees February 7, the Cardinal tackled the problem of who should be informed after an accusation has been made, a question that has bedeviled the archdiocese. In the past, the chancery has been informed but felt it could not act until police authorities shared information. Now the Cardinal has directed “as clearly as I possibly can that any information from any source about a possible molestation or abuse of a young person by anyone associated with the archdiocese must be reported immediately to public authorities and to me or to the archdiocesean offices” and he named the officer designated to receive the information.

The Cardinal continued: “While we look again at why information is not properly shared, I have put Jimmy Lago [the lay chancellor of the archdiocese whose formal name is not James but Jimmy] in charge of overseeing the present policies and their revision. His background in child protection and his knowledge of archdiocesean offices and policies make him uniquely qualified to oversee the revision and its implementation.”

Then the final paragraph which shows a marked change from the Old Order: “The quality of governance depends upon the flow of information; information in any office, except in the case of health or finance records in some instances is not something to be guarded rather than shared” [emphasis added] which was Justice Burke’s early point. He summarized: “In the case of anything related to the sexual abuse of minors, I ask you with insistence to come forward to me directly or to someone who will immediately inform me” [emphasis added].

Earlier, when discussing the McCormack case, the Cardinal appeared greatly disturbed with himself, haggard and drawn. He told the Sun-Times with great emotion, “I get…you know…very…troubled,” he said as he cleared his throat, his words on the brink of tears. “Remorseful.” Then as if counseling himself, he added: “There is no point in getting upset; you do your work and you don’t let that paralyze you.” Journalists waited for him to continue and he finally said: “I can’t imagine what must be in the hearts of many people again. We thought this was done or at least contained and it doesn’t seem to have been. I can only apologize for that.”

Recognizing and admiring his scrupulousness in blaming himself, most Chicago Catholics understand that the Cardinal is an extraordinarily gifted man, one of the top theologians and philosophers in the U. S. church, ranked often as the most sensitive and perceptive of the archbishops in the country who has been outstanding in apologetics, the art of explaining the mission of the Church.

But no sooner had he expressed contrition and recognition of his own failing, than a brutal scathing of him came on NBC television from an unlikely source, a liberal retiring pastor, one who would have expected to show tolerance and compassion, but who has long been identified with Bernardin-style leniency in the archdiocese. The priest, Fr. William G. Kenneally, pastor of St. Gertrude’s on the city’s North Side, is on the verge of retirement after more than two decades as pastor (itself an anomaly in an archdiocese where pastors are required to live by term limits). Fr. Kenneally, a free-lancing critic of traditionalism, was shown in his favorite attire of open-throated sports shirt, and delivered the opinion that if the archdiocese can be shown to be derelict in any measure, Cardinal George should resign. The statement shocked the clergy and many congregants. Later, Fr. Kenneally fudged. But he clearly loved the media attention—as he did some years ago when he attacked Cong. Henry Hyde for being a “meathead” due to his sponsorship of the Hyde amendment that banned Medicaid funding of abortion. Fr. Kenneally is a friend of Sun-Times columnist Fr. Andrew Greeley, another over-age rebel of the Church who has made multi-millions savaging the Church.

The Kenneally pronouncement was a shocking attack on the prelate at the time when he was seeking some understanding. One priest told me it was a cruel assault that shows how unappreciative the liberal clergy has been with the successor to Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, despite the fact that Cardinal George has sought to protect clergy from possible unwarranted allegations.

“Helping them as he had, it still didn’t do Cardinal George any good, “ a priest mentioned to me. “They want Bernardin back.” But, when I said Cardinal Bernardin is dead and not coming back, he smiled and said “he was so good to them [the liberals] that they don’t want to recognize he died.”

Later Cardinal George removed another priest from the ministry, Fr. Joseph Bennett from Holy Ghost parish in suburban South Holland while authorities were trying to determine if he abused two young girls decades ago. Archdiocesean officials acknowledged that the south suburban priest, had not been assigned a monitor despite the fact that the church first received the abuse allegation against him in March, 2004.

While the Cardinal was undergoing brutal self-criticism, another bishop, known to be one of the most liberal in Illinois, was engaged himself in a spirited battle with the media and Catholics in his diocese of Joliet, IL. Bishop Joseph Imesch pleaded his case in a letter to church-goers last week. The bishop was the focus of a deposition in which he admitted not removing priests despite credible abuse, declaring that he knew one of his priests had gone skinny-dipping with boys and, according to the Sun-Times, “played naked games with them.” Bishop Imesch sent the priest to a psychiatrist. Later the priest was moved to another suburban town where he was accused of abuse.

In contrast to Cardinal George who took his blows and acknowledged he should have done better, Bishop Imesch steadfastly defended his actions and blamed them on bad advice from psychologists. He said that most of the abuse cases took place decades ago “before psychologists recognized that behavior…was indicative of a severe problem that could not be adequately treated…I would never have returned a priest into ministry if I had not been assured by professional therapists that he was ready to return. The media reports tend to portray me as someone who doesn’t care about the safety of children. Nothing could be further from the truth. I became a priest because I care.”


  1. Tom, I am sorry to have to post this publicly but you insist on continuing your public criticism of Cardinal George. He has conceded prudential error, your original point of criticism. What good is served by continuing to describe the attacks on him, whether from enemies or friends? How do these columns serve constructively, either within the Church or civil society?

    If you believe that further changes in policy for the archdiocese must be made, why can your advice not be delivered privately? What is gained by making it public? The only justification that I can see would be a belief on your part that the archdiocese and Cardinal George are intransigent, continuing to make serious errors and unwilling to listen to private counsel. Only that can justify publicly joining in the chorus of criticism. Public criticism is a poitical action that can only have as its aim achieving change in policy or behavior through political pressure. This sort of action is perfectly appropriate in our civil society, where decisions are made via informed voters in elections.

    But that is now how the Church is governed. In some instances intransigence by Church leaders might leave public political pressure as the only means to achieve a change in behavior. But is that really your assessment of Cardinal George, that he is not listening to people and that he is instransigence such that only public criticism has a hope of effecting a change? Even if that were true before you published your first items on this, is it still true?

    In what way do these recent columns build up the Church, Tom? In what way do they even build up civil society?

  2. Correction: "But that is not how the Church is governed."

  3. Hi Dennis,
    This is a column from The Wanderer, a nationwide publication. It seems to me that Tom is describing a situation in Chicago that may not be familiar to the rest of the country.

    Tom more than adequately describes the situation in Chicago, and the political/canonical process that goes into many decisions here. He has been doing this for years, and by continuing this, is regarded as one of the best analysts in the history of Chicago journalism.

    It is valuable information, and well worth reading the Wanderer.