ROME — Catholic conspiracy theorists unite! After weeks of speculation that American Cardinal Raymond Burke had been secretly slapping up anti-Pope posters and stirring up a schism among conservatives who oppose Pope Francis, the American has suddenly been shipped out to sea.
Specifically, Burke has been sent to the island of Guam, an American outpost of about 162,000 people in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. His departure was seemingly spontaneous, with the Catholic News Service only announcing his arrival when he landed on the island late Wednesday.
The Vatican press office offered a quick explanation for Burke’s departure. While it hadn’t been publicized at the time, Burke had been named by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as the presiding judge in a case against Guam Archbishop Anthony Apuron last October. Apuron has refused to resign despite a handful of allegations of sexual misconduct from altar boys who served him in the 1970s.
This is the first such case that Burke has been sent to oversee. He was the head of the Vatican’s tribunal until 2014 when Francis sidelined him shortly after he started his papacy in 2013.
On Thursday, Burke was supposed to hear testimony from chief accuser Roland Sondia, but the Associated Press reports from Guam that the accuser’s lawyer David Lujan advised his client against it because he couldn’t be there to support him, calling the whole Vatican legal process under Burke’s guidance “worse” than he thought.
Sondia was told his lawyer could not be present while he was “questioned by the prosecutor, who is a priest, and Archbishop Apuron's lawyer, who is a priest, and a presider who is Cardinal Burke, and a notary who is also a priest,” Lujan told the Associated Press in Guam. “We felt it wasn't in my client's best interest to be in that position.” Sondia will instead file a written deposition.
Despite being well versed in Canon law, Burke’s reputation on clerical sex abuse cases is dismal. He stands accused of not reporting predator priests while he worked in the United States, and he once blamed gay priests as the authors of the assaults, accusing the perpetrators of being “feminized and confused about their own sexual identity.”
Burke has most recently been caught up in two public rifts with the pope. In one, he and three other cardinals signaled dubia or doubts about the pope’s teachings on love and the family. In the other, the Pope felt compelled to intervene in the inner governance of the sovereign Knights of Malta Catholic order, for which Burke is a chief advisor and chaplain.
But even that story seems to be as veiled as a cloistered nun. Writing in Crux Catholic website papal biographer Austen Ivereigh broke the news on Wednesday that it wasn’t actually the order’s Grand Master Fra’ Matthew Festing who forced the resignation of its Grand Chancellor Albrecht Von Boeselager over a scandal that involved Von Boeselager approving the distribution of condoms to sex slaves in Myanmar.
It was apparently Burke himself who forced the original resignation. The pope to intervened to require Festing’s resignation and reinstate Von Boeselager.
If the account is accurate, “it was Burke, not the pope, who may have violated the Knights’ sovereignty,” Ivereigh writes. “A decision to sack a member of the Sovereign Council can only be made by the order’s General Chapter, not by the pope’s chaplain, or patronus, who represents the Holy See.”
If that is truly the case, it is not just the pope who can rest easier with Burke away, no doubt the Knights of Malta can also put their house in order once again. One thing everyone is watching is whether, with Burke now on posted among the palms of tropical Guam, the anti-pope campaign will stop. If it does, widespread theories that Burke was the mastermind will be all but confirmed. But if it doesn’t, the plot clearly thickens.