Burke Fears for Priest Panel Autonomy

By James Janega
Chicago Tribune [Chicago IL]
September 21, 2004

The outgoing head of the U.S. Catholic Church's review board on sex abuse issues said Monday that bishops were planning to appoint a nun to the panel, a move she feared would reduce the board's independence from church hierarchy.

In a sometimes fiery speech at Loyola University Chicago, Illinois Appellate Court Judge Anne Burke said the plan was more evidence of what she called "mischievers at work" within the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops who are seeking to squelch two years of "freedom and accountability" since the National Review Board was established.

All previous members of the board have been laypeople, which members say allows the panel to operate more independently.

It was unclear Monday if the nun being considered, Sister Carol Keehan, had already been selected for the board. Keehan is the longtime president of Providence Hospital in Washington, D.C., and chairwoman-elect of the Catholic Health Association.

Board members said Bishop Wilton Gregory, head of the bishops conference, had told them in a fax Friday that a decision about new board members had been made.

A board member said she was told Keehan had been chosen.

A spokesman for the conference, Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, denied Monday that decisions had been finalized.

Burke's comments shed light on a board that has been forceful in dealing with the sexual abuse crisis but appears to be in a period of transition.

In the last two years the board has opened the Office of Child and Youth Protection and appointed a former FBI official to head it. Studies of the extent and possible causes of the scandal were undertaken, and dioceses' responses to it were catalogued.

"We find ourselves at a turning point in which forces within the hierarchy are seeking to derail much of what has occurred," Burke said Monday.

Bishops at a closed meeting this summer tried to delay a proposed 2004 audit of whether dioceses were complying with efforts to end the abuse crisis, she said, as well as interfered in efforts to launch a lengthy epidemiological study of the causes of the crisis (this sentence as published has been corrected in this text).

Both efforts failed, said Burke, "because we raised holy hell." In a week, the review board will issue requests for proposals for the epidemiological study, she said.

The review board and a committee of bishops had agreed on a mechanism to replace board members, Burke said. The agreement was that members be picked from the laity, and last week 10 names were submitted to the conference for consideration, she said.

"Then they put in someone who didn't go through that process. That is a violation of trust," Burke said.

Technically, Keehan is not a member of the clergy, which includes priests, deacons and bishops.

Women religious are considered laity, though Burke and Maniscalco agreed the distinction might seem problematic even to some Catholics.

"Sociologically, people look at them on the side of the clergy," said Maniscalco, while also defending nuns' history of independence and outspokenness.

Keehan is a member of the Daughters of Charity, which does not answer to a U.S. bishop.

Burke and board member Jane Chiles called Keehan an eminent Catholic but said her religious vows could be problematic to board deliberations.

"We believe that the distinction of being an entirely lay board has an inherent advantage to it," Chiles said. "It gives us not just the impression of independence. It does give us independence."


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