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  Burke Link to Accused Priest Raises Conflict Issue

By Todd Lighty
The Jersey Journal [New Jersey]
April 10, 2004

Victims' advocates say Anne Burke, head of the U.S. Catholic bishops' oversight board on sex abuse, should have disclosed her friendship with a former Chicago priest who resigned in the 1990s amid allegations of sexual misconduct involving a minor.

Burke, an Illinois appellate judge, said her friendship with former priest Thomas O'Gorman--now a speechwriter for her husband, Ald. Edward Burke--had no bearing on her work with the National Review Board of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. She said she only recently learned of his past.

Supporting Burke, two fellow board members doubted her friendship with the priest influenced her thinking, arguing she has been a strong advocate for children molested by priests. O'Gorman has denied the accusations against him, and he left the priesthood before church authorities made any official determination in his case.

However, others said Burke should have immediately and fully disclosed the relationship once she learned of the past accusation of abuse against O'Gorman, no matter how minor the allegation appeared.

A prominent Catholic theologian, a priest sex-abuse victim and a victims-rights group said Burke's failure to disclose the relationship damages her credibility as an independent voice for Catholic laypeople.

Rev. Richard McBrien, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame, said Burke made a mistake in not disclosing the friendship.

"It has a material effect in assessing her credibility," McBrien said. "It affects how she's perceived and whether she is able to investigate these cases with a completely open mind.

"Perception is important. Perception is part of reality," McBrien said. "It's not Anne Burke's judgment to make. It's up to others--the church, victims, Catholics--to decide whether it affects her credibility."

David Clohessy, a spokesman for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said bishops had suffered a crisis of credibility after secretly transferring child molesting priests from parish to parish, and covering up for them. He said the National Review Board that Burke leads was to restore confidence in the Catholic Church.

"This lay board is the last, best hope for Catholics," Clohessy said. "I just can't help but think that Catholic laypeople and victims will worry about her objectivity in light of this."

One woman, molested by an archdiocesan priest when she was 14, said she was surprised that Burke had not made the disclosure.

"For there to be any taint, any hint of a conflict of interest, this is not good at all," the woman said.

Burke said she "recently" learned that O'Gorman had been accused of sexual misconduct when the archdiocese of Chicago showed her a list of priests suspected of sex abuse with minors.

She said she was an independent thinker and her friendship had no influence on her work with the review board, which in February issued two milestone reports on child sex abuse in the church.

"Tom O'Gorman is an employee of my husband and a family friend," said Burke, later adding, "My thoughts are my thoughts. Nobody has any influence on me."

Board members praised Burke, saying she is a strong, independent voice on the panel.

"I have tremendous respect for her," said Leon Panetta, an ex-congressman and former White House chief of staff for President Bill Clinton. "She has been one of the toughest people on the church. I don't think this relationship affected her judgment."

Board member Robert Bennett, a prominent Washington attorney, said he, too, was unaware of Burke's relationship with the former priest, but quickly added, "Anne is a woman of tremendous skill and integrity."

The two board members contacted by the Tribune said they were unaware of the friendship. Burke said she saw no need to disclose the friendship because it had no impact on decision-making and was not a conflict of interest.

Burke said she understood the alleged victim was an adult and that it involved a single, uncorroborated allegation.

But according to the archdiocese and the Cook County state's attorney's office, the alleged victim was a minor.

A former prosecutor involved in the case recalled that the then 44-year-old priest was accused of giving alcohol to boys from Loyola Academy in Wilmette at his West Side church rectory and having one boy dress up in English riding clothes.

Jerry Lawrence, a spokesman for the state's attorney office, declined to provide additional details but he said the incident was investigated and no criminal charges were brought.

O'Gorman officially resigned the priesthood in 1994 and the following year landed a job with Ald. Burke. O'Gorman declined to discuss how he got the job, except to say he walked into City Hall and applied.

"They are very, very cordial to me," O'Gorman said of the Burkes. "They are very, very lovely people."

Ald. Burke, who represents the 14th Ward and is chairman of the City Council's Finance Committee, did not respond to repeated messages seeking comment.

Besides working for the alderman, O'Gorman acted as the family's spokesman to the media when the Burkes' son, Emmett, was killed in February in a snowmobiling accident in Barrington Hills.

O'Gorman, ordained in 1977, had served at two South Side parishes, St. Barnabas and Sts. Peter and Paul, before moving onto St. Malachy Catholic Church in 1983.

While there, the popular priest earned a reputation as a champion for the poor. He opposed a proposal for a new Chicago Bears stadium in the church's neighborhood, fearing that too many poor residents would lose their homes. He took on the Illinois State Lottery and forced the agency to remove a billboard promoting gambling, saying the lottery was targeting the poor.

Around that time, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin had confronted a sex-abuse scandal in the archdiocese. Bernardin in 1991 formed the Commission on Clerical Sexual Misconduct with Minors in response to a growing number of allegations against priests, particularly the case of Robert Mayer, a Chicago priest with a 10-year history of sex-abuse accusations.

The widening church crisis eventually swept up O'Gorman.

O'Gorman was the 21st local priest investigated for sexual misconduct within that year.

Bernardin placed O'Gorman on administrative leave in August 1992 following allegations of sexual misconduct with a minor, said archdiocese spokesman James Dwyer.

Dwyer said O'Gorman had left the ministry before the archdiocese created its own review board, which now evaluates priests' fitness for ministry.

"We will acknowledge he was withdrawn from the ministry due to an allegation of sexual misconduct and that he resigned before there was an official determination," Dwyer said.

Dwyer said O'Gorman's allegation was among a listing of 55 priests' cases that the archdiocese provided to the John Jay College of Criminal Justice as part of the college's statistical study of sex offenders in the American Catholic Church. Those cases involved sex-abuse allegations that the archdiocese "had reason to suspect may have happened," Dwyer said.

O'Gorman, now 55, never attempted to return to the ministry.

In an interview last week, O'Gorman said the allegation of sexual misconduct against him was "totally untrue." Asked why he left the priesthood, O'Gorman replied, "Time for a change."

O'Gorman said he "did not really know the Burkes" when he was hired in 1995. He said he now writes speeches for Ald. Burke but had never written any for his Anne Burke.

Both O'Gorman and Anne Burke said they had not discussed the current sex-abuse crisis in the church with one another. "That would be the last thing I would want to be involved with," O'Gorman said.

 
 

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