Now, I cannot agree with her specific proposal:
Anne Burke, a justice on the Illinois State Supreme Court and former head of the review board of lay people established by the U.S. bishops to oversee their new policies, says Benedict should ditch the shoes, the fur, and all the other trappings of papal regalia and swap his hallmark white cassock for a simple black one for the remainder of his papacy as a powerful sign of penance for the scandal of the sexual abuse of children by clergy.
However, I like her gumption: "I do think it has to be something extremely dramatic." Indeed!
Burke has a long history with this issue:
"I was very hopeful when he became pope," Burke told me, recalling her reaction after the surprising April 2005 election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI. "I thought this was really going to be good. He might not do anything drastic, but at least he understood."However, her frustration, like many of ours, has only increased:
Burke's optimism was based on events from 2004, at the nadir of the American chapter of the clergy abuse crisis, when she and her colleagues on the National Review Board found themselves thwarted by the bishops who set up the panel in 2002 to serve as an independent, lay-run voice to oversee the bishops' behavior.
The board members decided to go over the hierarchy's head and straight to the Vatican. They faxed requests for meetings to all the major Vatican departments and the cardinals who headed them. One of just three to respond was Cardinal Ratzinger. In January 2004, Burke and two colleagues met with Ratzinger in his offices for two-and-a-half hours, a remarkable event. He pledged to take action, which Burke says he then did as a cardinal, and, at least initially, as pope. A month after that 2004 meeting, Ratzinger also sent she and her husband a heartfelt note of condolences when her 30-year-old son was killed in a snowmobiling accident.
Yet the past months of revelations and criticisms about Ratzinger's spotty record on abuse, the blustery counterattacks coming from the Vatican and top papal aides, and more important, Pope Benedict's refusal to publicly address the questions and qualms of the media and the flock, have unsettled Burke.
"He had his choice, of going down the similar bureaucratic path of all popes, or actually bringing the church into the 21st century, and to be known for that. He hasn't done that," she said.
Back in April, Burke and some of her former review board colleagues were lamenting the sad state of affairs in Rome -- "They seem to be shooting themselves in the foot every time something comes out of that Vatican" -- when she decided she'd try to break through the Vatican cordon by writing directly to the pope.And I feel this attitude is very promising:
"I didn't think I could rest until I actually wrote a letter."
Which she did, offering to share the expertise she and the board had gained through their experience to help the pope and the Vatican deal with the crisis. Burke said she really didn't expect a response, but one arrived two weeks ago, in mid-July. It was from Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone, passed along through the Vatican's ambassador to the U.S., Archbishop Pietro Sambi -- "the usual channels" -- and it thanked Burke and suggested she get in touch with Jeffrey Lena, the California attorney who is defending the Vatican from sex abuse lawsuits.
As a judge, Burke can't participate in any way in the case Lena is defending, and that wasn't in any sense the point of her letter. "It was just one of those things, they really didn't pay attention," she said. Lena has tried to call her at the Vatican's behest, but she said she can't get involved legally, and in any case, the details of the sex abuse crisis are a symptom as much as the illness itself.
"This has gone way beyond the sex abuse crisis. They're using that as a shield for all the other missteps," said Burke, who is a Dame of Malta, the female counterpart of the Knights of Malta, a prominent Catholic charitable organization.
Burke says she'd like to see the Vatican meet with an international group of lay people, a larger version of the National Review Board that the bishops set up, but one that would be able to talk with the pope about a range of issues. "I mean, what's wrong with listening? It doesn't mean they're going to follow through, but it would give people at least some presence at the table."
Burke doesn't necessarily blame Benedict for the Vatican's current problems; she hopes he is still the same man she and her colleagues met in 2004 -- a cardinal willing to listen, dressed in plain black cassock without a hint of red and no outward sign of his ecclesiastical rank.
The problem now, she says, is that "his position is like any other politician -- he's surrounded by those who have been there before" and who want to "keep things as they were before because they have the power."
Rather than writing another letter, Burke prefers to speak out publicly in hopes of leapfrogging protocol to get right to the pope.
"That's really the only thing you can do, is publicity of some sort, saying, 'Don't you get it?' "