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When Pope John Paul II tapped him to be Archbishop of St. Louis last December, Raymond Burke took yet another stride along the ecumenical fast track. Ordained as a priest in Rome by Pope Paul VI in 1975, Burke had studied canon law in Italy. In 1989 he was appointed to the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the church's highest court, and six years later the pope named him bishop of La Crosse, Wisconsin. Now, at age 55, he was taking his place on the national stage.
The local press described him as the ultimate Vatican insider, a conservative who was said to follow papal decrees minutely. His hard-line stances often spilled over into the eccentric: He'd pulled his diocese out of Church World Services' annual Crop Walk because the agency advocates birth control. He'd criticized J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series of children's books. He'd spearheaded a controversial $25 million shrine in La Crosse honoring Our Lady of Guadalupe. Most remarkably, he'd ordered priests in his diocese to deny Communion to Catholic politicians who supported euthanasia or abortion rights.
One controversy, however, appeared to have missed Burke entirely: the clergy sex-abuse scandal, which for two years running had rocked the moral underpinnings of the Catholic Church.
While other dioceses reeled amid thousands of allegations of abuse by priests, the Diocese of La Crosse had recently reported that from 1950 to 2002 a mere 10 out of a total of 705 clerics had been found guilty of sexual misconduct -- a rate of 1.4 percent. By contrast, the United States Council of Catholic Bishops reported a national average of roughly 4 percent during the same time period. All told, only 31 allegations of clergy sexual abuse had been substantiated in La Crosse. Only three of those cases had made headlines in Wisconsin. One involved a non-diocesan priest, Timothy Svea, who was part of a religious order (see accompanying sidebar); the other two priests are dead.
Burke, it seemed, had tended his garden nicely in La Crosse and was well poised to minister to the fallout of the scandal in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Whereas his predecessor, Justin Rigali, had drawn fire for ignoring victims of abuse, the incoming archbishop was tidily insulated from the problem. So much so, in fact, that when St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Ron Harris asked him to name the most pressing issue facing the Catholic Church here, Burke replied, "How to organize our parishes and our Catholic schools."
But some members of Raymond Burke's former flock paint a far different portrait of the erstwhile bishop of La Crosse. If cases of clergy sex abuse were few and far between, they say, it was because Burke was a master at keeping a lid on them. Several victims who claim they were abused by priests in La Crosse tell Riverfront Times they were stonewalled by Burke, who declined to report their allegations to local authorities. And while some of his fellow church officials nationwide were reaching hefty settlements with victims, Raymond Burke was unyielding in his refusal to negotiate with victims' rights groups. He declined to make public the names of priests who were known to have been abusive, and he denied requests to set up a victims' fund. Most strikingly, Riverfront Times has learned, while bishop in La Crosse Burke allowed at least three priests to remain clerics in good standing long after allegations of their sexual misconduct had been proven -- to the church, to the courts and, finally, to Burke himself.
His critics say Burke's ability to conceal the diocese's dirty laundry was abetted by Wisconsin's unique civil code, which makes it virtually impossible for someone to sue the church for the actions of an individual priest.
"He stands with his fellow bishops in Wisconsin as having had the ability to just rebuke and ignore our victims," says Jeff Anderson, an attorney in St. Paul, Minnesota, who specializes in clergy abuse cases. "He has a long history of making pastoral statements that they care, that they want to heal, that they want to help. They are very long on words, but very short on actions."
"We don't exist, for him," seconds Peter Isely, a Wisconsin leader of the national Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). "Loyalty to the church is of the highest order for him, and his response to victims' claims has been lethargic and slow and reluctant and bureaucratic and impersonal."
Then again, if success is measured in money saved and avoidance of scandal, Raymond Burke possesses a sterling record. At a time when dioceses are reaching million-dollar settlements with individual victims and filing for bankruptcy, Burke reported in January 2004 that between 1950 and 2002 the Diocese of La Crosse paid out a grand total of $15,807.38 to victims seeking counseling for clergy sexual abuse.
It was in May of 1971 that B.V. first met the man she says sexually abused her. She was nine years old, and her family had traveled 45 minutes to the small town of Hewitt, Wisconsin, to attend a relative's wedding. While at the wedding, her parents befriended Father Raymond Bornbach, pastor of St. Michael's Parish. (At their request, victims in this article are not identified by name.)
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