The former interim chair of a board of high-power lay Catholics appointed by U.S. bishops at the height of the sexual abuse scandal in the early 2000s says members want to investigate how former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick rose through the ecclesial ranks despite a history of sexual misconduct. They also seek to close a loophole in church policy that critics say fails to hold bishops accountable when it comes to sexual abuse allegations.
In a letter sent on Friday to Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke wrote that the original board is “deeply disturbed and saddened by the recent reports that sexual abuse by the clergy and its alleged cover-up has reached into the hierarchy of the church.”
The letter was first reported on Tuesday by The Chicago Sun-Times.
Judge Burke wrote that she consulted with the members of the original board, which included figures from law enforcement, politics, law and higher education, and said they wish to be of help in assisting “the church in dealing with the very serious crisis that it is currently facing.”
A new board should investigate the church’s mishandling of abuse allegations that pre-date the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, the “flaw in the Charter which has always exempted the bishops from the process.”
“We believe that an ‘Independent Inquiry board’ comprised entirely of lay people should be convened,” she wrote.
Michael J. Bland, a Chicago-based therapist who was a member of the original review board, confirmed that Judge Burke reached out to the other members by phone and email before sending the letter to Cardinal DiNardo.
Last week, the current iteration of National Review Board released a statement calling for an investigation led by lay people into allegations that bishops and other church leaders mishandled abuse claims.
“The National Review Board has for several years expressed its concern that bishops not become complacent in their response to sexual abuse by the clergy,” the statement said. “ It is time for the laity to assume courageous leadership to help the Church respond and to heal and for the bishops to listen carefully to our recommendations.”
The original lay review board released a 158-page report in 2004 that detailed the church’s mishandling of sexual abuse claims, studied the causes of the crisis and made recommendations about creating safe environments for children. In her letter, Judge Burke said that the original board’s efforts “have been very effective in accomplishing our goals to protect children and young people,” but said more work needs to be done, particularly when it comes to holding bishops accountable.
“We were never given the power to investigate the bishops,” Judge Burke told the Sun-Times.
A new board, Judge Burke wrote, should investigate the church’s mishandling of abuse allegations that pre-date the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, the “flaw in the Charter which has always exempted the bishops from the process,” and an investigation into Archbishop McCarrick’s case.
In June, Pope Francis removed from public ministry then-Cardinal McCarrick because of a substantiated allegation of sexual abuse against a minor that is alleged to have occurred several decades ago. The cardinal resigned from the College of Cardinals in July after allegations of sexual misconduct involving priests and seminarians were made public.
Last month, a grand jury report chronicling decades of sexual abuse of children by priests and an alleged cover-up by church leaders in six Pennsylvania dioceses was released, prompting protests and calls for resignations. The release of that report was followed by claims made by a former papal nuncio to the United States that U.S. and Vatican officials, including Pope Francis, knew about the sexual misconduct charges against then-Cardinal McCarrick but chose not to act.
Cardinal DiNardo has requested an audience with Pope Francis to discuss an investigation into Archbishop McCarrick and sexual abuse more broadly.
She asked that Cardinal DiNardo recommend that the board work directly with the Vatican, using Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, as its liaison.
In her letter to Cardinal DiNardo, Judge Burke wrote, “In order to restore confidence in the Church and the hierarchy, we strongly recommend that you request the Holy See to appoint the members of our Board to investigate and report to the Holy See on the allegations in this evolving crisis and to make recommendations to the Bishops Conference.”
She asked that Cardinal DiNardo recommend that the board work directly with the Vatican, using Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, as its liaison. Archbishop Scicluna carried out an investigation into the mishandling of abuse allegations in Chile, which led to a mass resignation of bishops in that country.
Last month, Judge Burke said she believes law enforcement officials in every U.S. state should lead investigations into how the Catholic Church handled allegations of sexual abuse similar to the investigation in Pennsylvania.
U.S. bishops maintain a National Review Board, whose purpose is “to advise the U.S.C.C.B. in preventing the sexual abuse of minors in the United States by persons in the service of the Church,” according to its webpage.
In addition to Judge Burke, other members of the original board include the former head of the Central Intelligence Agency, Leon Panetta, Nicholas P. Cafardi, former dean and professor of law at Duquesne University, Petra Jimenez Maes, a justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court and Washington, D.C.-based attorney Robert S. Bennett.
The original board was not without controversy. The chair of the group, former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, resigned in 2003 after citing the unwillingness of bishops to cooperate with the group’s investigation, a charge that other board members denied at the time.
“We offer the church our help, knowledge, wisdom, credibility and experience in this time of great need,” Judge Burke wrote.