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Advocacy group for clergy abuse victims submits cases against Rigali, Burke to Vatican tribunal

Cathedral Basicila of St. Louis votive candles
Rachel Heidenry | 2008
A group of retired priests and nuns are asking a Vatican tribunal to investigate whether two former archbishops of St. Louis committed "culpable negligence" in their handling of clergy abuse cases.

Cases against two former St. Louis Catholic archbishops are being submitted to Pope Francis’ new Vatican tribunal that investigates bishops accused of covering up abuse.

The Catholic Whistleblowers, a group of retired priests, nuns and other advocates for victims of clergy abuse, called for investigations of Cardinals Justin Rigali and Raymond Burke earlier this week during a news conference in Philadelphia. Their announcement comes less than a week before the pope’s visit to the U.S.

The group said the tribunal, which was established by Francis in June, should look into whether Rigali and Burke committed "culpable negligence," or knew better and didn't act, in cases of suspected clergy abuse.

"We said, you know, it would be a mistake for the pope to have started something like this and people not to respond. When Rome announced in June that this had been established, it was very clear that they were inviting — in fact, the word 'duty' got used in one of the communications — people to make their concerns known," said retired priest and canonical lawyer Father James Connell of Milwaukee.

The Whistleblower group's Sister Maureen Paul Turlish of Delaware agreed.

“If no one sends anything in, then whoever is on this board is going to say, ‘Well, nobody said anything, so there’s no reason for us to exist,'" she said at the news conference.

During a discussion with St. Louis Public Radio, Connell said the group felt there were certain "flags" in Rigali's and Burke's handling of abuse cases that the tribunal should look into, and so submitted a collection of documents, which were also sent to the cardinals. 

Connell said the documents include issues that occurred during both cardinals' time as head of the St. Louis Archdiocese. Rigali was archbishop from 1994 to 2003; Burke followed from 2003 to 2008. 

  • The group claims the archdiocese under Rigali did not move quickly enough to remove an admitted abuser, Father Norman Christian, from ministry. Christian had been sent to a New Mexico treatment center for troubled priests in the 1980s, but returned to ministry. The archdiocese of St. Louis said Christian was removed from ministry in late 1995 — about a year after Rigali became archbishop — following an accusation of abuse of a minor in the fall of that year.

"But Father Christian’s abuse was known before that," Connell said.
The archdiocese would later settle with a victim of Christian. A report on recommendations to the archdiocese submitted in 1996 found that Christian admitted to molesting several children. However, according to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch report, Christian was never formally laicized, or removed from the priesthood. 

Also included in the Whistleblower's documents is a civil lawsuit brought in 2005 by an alleged victim of Christian against the archdiocese. While the suit was thrown out because the statute of limitations had expired, the judge in the case wrote: "There is disputed evidence in the record that would be sufficient to allow the trier of fact to find each of the elements of intentional failure to supervise clergy. ... Defendant archdiocese has not shown facts to negate these, nor has defendant shown that there is no genuine dispute as to these facts."

Later, Christian's sister Carol Kuhnert wrote a book in which she said Christian admitted to abusing several children. According to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch report, Burke wrote to one victim: "For my part, I want you to know how sincerely sorry I am for the suffering you have experienced for so long from the abuse by Norman Christian that you reported."

  • Connell also cites an Associated Press article regarding two settlements in 1996 and 1997 over alleged abuse by Father Joseph Lessard, who admitted he sexually abused a dozen boys in the 1970s. He retired in 1993. Rigali in 2002 apologized to Lessard's victims. But Connell said neither Rigali nor Burke removed Lessard, who died in 2014, from the priesthood, nor warned anyone about his history.

"One of our major themes is this is about protecting children and removing them from ministry so they can not be near children and warning people about this," Connell said. 

  • Connell also reiterated concerns about warning parishioners about suspected abusive priests in treatment centers for troubled priests near St. Louis. 

"These priests were able to go out in parishes to do ministry to do work, and to the best of our knowledge — all we're asking for is an investigation — we're unable to investigate these pastors (or if) people were not warned," Connell said. 

  • Connell said the Whistleblowers group has also submitted a letter from a St. Louis man who said he is the victim of clergy sexual abuse and that the priest is still ministering in the archdiocese and would have been active under both Burke and Rigali. Connell said since there have been "no substantiated allegations," he will not identify the priest, but did put his name in the report to the tribunal. 
  • In 2002, U.S. bishops established the Charter for the Protection of Young People, essentially procedures for church leaders in dealing with cases of abuse. According to Connell, it required cases of abuse to be passed along to the Vatican, but he said he is not sure whether Rigali or Burke passed along cases that should have been sent.

Additionally, the group said it has concerns regarding Rigali's time as Philadelphia's archbishop. Shortly after he became the head of that archdiocese in 2003, a report came out finding evidence that church leaders prior to him covered up cases of abuse. Connell said that should have provided a "road map" for Rigali in dealing with suspected clergy abuse. But grand jury allegations surfaced in 2011 that Rigali kept about three dozen suspected abusers in active ministry. His successor removed several priests from ministry.
Arthur Baselice, whose son died of an overdose after he was abused and exposed to drugs by two clergyman in high school, also spoke at a Philadelphia press conference Wednesday. He said under Rigali's tenure, neither of his son's abusers were removed from the priesthood and still remain in limited ministry.

“If you’re responsible for a child’s death because you started giving them drugs and you used your position as a priest to molest them and do unspeakable things, should you be protected or should you be ostracized? They’re protecting them," he said at Wednesday's news conference.

The group also claims that because Burke —as head of the LaCrosse, Wis., diocese — used a stricter interpretation of guilt than U.S. bishops' policies call for in evaluating suspected abuse cases, abusive priests remained in ministry. 

The Whistleblower group said if the tribunal investigates and finds the cardinals committed negligence, they want a "just penalty" for Rigali and Burke, including removal from the College of Cardinals and other offices, listening to victims and publicly apologizing. However, the Vatican has not announced any additional details on the tribunal, such as staff selections or rules for the panel to follow, an indication it likely won't be set up soon.

But Pope Francis is expected to address the clergy sex abuse scandal in the United States during his visit, and likely will visit with victims, though those meetings will be private, church officials say.

Rigali, who now lives in Knoxville, Tenn., declined to comment, a spokesman told the Associated Press. Burke, who is patron of the Order of the Knights of Malta and lives in Rome, declined to comment to the AP through a spokeswoman. 

The St. Louis Archdiocese said it will not be commenting on these matters.

The Associated Press and Kevin McCorry of WHYY contributed to this report.

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