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Catholic lay leaders: We were wrong about Church, McCarrick on sex abuse crisis

Attorney Robert Bennett, former FBI official Kathleen McChesney, and Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke participated in a panel put on by the City Club of Chicago on the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. | Provided/City Club of Chicago

In 2004, Anne Burke went before the City Club of Chicago to say the Catholic Church was beginning “to set things right” by appointing a lay board — which Burke chaired — to address the sex abuse crisis then embroiling the Church.

“They have begun to do so by convening the unprecedented lay board on which I have been serving,” she said then. “It is a deep expression of their real willingness to respond to this abuse crisis.”

On Monday — as revelations about its failure to adequately address the crisis have rocked the highest levels of the Church — Burke told the same group her observation nearly a decade and half ago was wrong.

“Now I realize I was mistaken in thinking that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church would implement the recommendations in [our] report,” said Burke, who is now a justice on the Illinois Supreme Court.


The National Review Board, on which Burke served as interim chair, put forth many ideas in its report but was never able to adequately scrutinize the Church hierarchy, Burke said. This shortcoming was brought into sharp relief by the findings of widespread abuse in the Church by a Pennsylvania grand jury and the revelation earlier this year that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had risen to the heights of the Church in the United States despite multiple accusations of sex abuse.

Robert S. Bennett, a prominent Washington D.C. lawyer and another member of the nine-person review board when it was established by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002, echoed Burke’s disillusionment during the City Club event Monday.

“McCarrick was a very close, dear friend of mine. I loved the man. In my book, I say, many times, when I was very depressed with our work — what we were doing, what we were learning — I sort of said, ‘Here’s a bright light: Cardinal McCarrick. He’s a humble man, he’s a man who is not taken with the perks of office.’ And I couldn’t have been more wrong,” Bennett said.

Bennett, Burke, and the seven other Catholic laypeople who served with them during the first years of the National Review Board sent a letter in August to church officials, asking to be re-empaneled as an “Independent Inquiry Board.” The new board would examine the role of Church leadership in the abuse scandal and the handling of pre-2002 abuse cases. The Church acknowledged getting the letter, but the group has yet to receive an answer to the request.

Bennett and Burke were joined on stage by Kathleen McChesney, a former assistant executive director of the FBI who ran the Conference of Bishops’s Office of Child Protection.

There was an average of about 271 cases of child sexual abuse reported yearly in the 1970s, McChesney said Monday. In the past 15 years that number has dropped to about 13 — indicating the effectiveness of some of the safeguards put in place in the interim, McChesney said.

“The problem continues, but I think its important to note that there has been progress in the Catholic Church in the sense of diminishing the number of cases that have been occurring over time,” McChesney said.

All three panelists singled out leadership and pressure by laypeople as a driver of reform.

Bennett called for sweeping reforms in the Catholic Church including ending required celibacy and allowing marriage for priests, the ordination of female priests and a giving a lay representative more power in the Vatican.

“This is where I get close to being excommunicated,” Bennett quipped about the response to his proposals. Bennett gave low odds that any such changes would be made.