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Church in Crisis

Child advocate firm on charter compliance


In her spacious office in downtown Chicago, Justice Anne M. Burke’s strong words contrast with her gracious, charming manner. She was “surprised and humbled,” she said, to be invited to be a member of the new national review board overseeing implementation of the U.S. bishops’ charter to protect young people from sex abuse by priests.

But on the issue of abuse, she is absolute. “The zero-tolerance policy has been put in place for the children, the victims,” she said. “I realize that can be heartbreaking for some priest who may have had just one abuse incident many years ago. But it’s not about priests; it’s about child protection. And you can’t have a law that applies only to some.”

The invitation came in a call from Belleville, Ill., Bishop Wilton Gregory, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, two days before the bishops met in Dallas in June.

Burke, a justice of the Illinois Court of Appeals, First District, since 1995, has dedicated most of her 58 years to working on behalf of abused and neglected children.

As a South Side Chicago teen, she taught mentally disabled children in park district programs, then almost single-handedly founded the Chicago Special Olympics when she was 23. She later earned teaching and law degrees and set up her own law office where she specialized in cases involving battered, unwanted and delinquent youngsters. “It was sort of a natural progression,” said Burke. “The more education I got, the more I could do.”

Meanwhile she and her husband, Edward M. Burke, were raising four children, three of them adopted. Ed Burke went on to become a Chicago alderman; now 34 years (and nine elections) later, he is still one of the best-known and most powerful fixtures in the City Council. Anne was appointed by the governor in 1987 as special counsel for child welfare services and immediately instituted a major training program to improve communication between social workers and police. The old system wasn’t working, she said. Cases dragged on in court for months, for years, “and it was the kids, only the kids who suffered.”

Six years ago, with their youngest child 20, the Burkes tried to improve the red-tape-cluttered foster parent system. To gain experience, they obtained licensing as foster parents themselves and began to take short-term custody of drug-addicted babies. “We thought we might become good examples to other empty nesters like ourselves,” Anne said.

However, their second foster child became a cause célèbre when questions arose about the mother’s competence to regain custody. A high profile, bitter court battle lasted two years, with the Burkes eventually obtaining legal guardianship of the boy, now 6. (The mother retains visiting rights.) Throughout the battle, the Burkes were often accused of using their clout and influential friends to get their way.

“We knew the mother was not qualified,” Burke said of the ordeal. “We knew we had no choice but to fight.”

She does not think her new job for the bishops will be difficult. According to the approved policy, each diocese will have its own review board, which will be examined by the new Office of Protection (actually an investigative agency), which will report to the lay review board, which will report to the bishops and the public. “Everything will be open,” Burke said, “absolutely.”

She declined to comment on the reported opinion of her board’s chair, Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, that bishops who cover up abuse should be held legally accountable. “My personal feelings about the charter are irrelevant,” Burke said. “It’s [the bishops’] charter, their rules, and they will be complied with.”

Burke added she became confident that the laity’s “great faith” will sustain Catholics through the crisis after attending one of the Chicago listening sessions on abuse at a South Side parish. “The people were really, really angry at the bishops,” she said, “but not one of them said their faith was shaken. Look, governments fall, administrations fall, the church has gone through so many scandals, and it’s come back better than before. I believe this involvement of the laity is just the first step of many involvements to come.

“And I tell you this: There will be no secrecy this time. If someone tries it, I’m out of here.”

Robert McClory, an NCR special report writer, lives in Chicago.

National Catholic Reporter, August 2, 2002