Before this year, when Pope Benedict XVI became best-known for his questionable record in dealing with the sexual abuse of children by priests, the pontiff often made headlines for his fastidious attention to high-end clerical fashion.
Soon after his election in 2005, for example, Benedict rummaged through the papal attic for ornate gold vestments last worn during the Renaissance, and he resurrected a 19th-century liturgical cape so wide is must be held up by two attendants. Benedict has taken to wearing ermine-trimmed capes and hats, as well -- to the chagrin of animal rights activists -- and he even commissioned a set of 30 new vestments modeled on those worn by the notorious Medici pope, Leo X, who at his election famously declared, "Let us enjoy the papacy since God has given it to us."
The pope's daily attire has also drawn notice, from his sunglasses -- rumored to be Serengetis by Bushnell -- to his fancy red leather shoes, which were originally thought to be Prada but turned out to be custom made by a shop
in northern Italy.
Now a lay woman who has been a leader in efforts to clean up Catholicism's sex abuse scandal wants to link these two issues -- sex abuse and papal fashion -- and by doing so, help the pope, and her beloved church.
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.
So can clothes really make the pope -- and help heal the church?
"Yes, and I do think it has to be something extremely dramatic, " Burke told me, saying that such a sartorial switch would be a powerful public statement, and an important symbol that would resonate particularly strongly with Catholics.
Burke's ideas were first floated in an item
by Chicago Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed, who asked her what she'd tell the pope if she had the chance to speak with him. Humility and contrition were the themes she suggested, followed by some specific recommendations:
-- "The pope's red shoes should go to a museum, replaced by flat black brogues."
-- "Fur in all its uses should be set aside demonstrating a change of heart on the pope's part."
-- "The pope should urge members of the hierarchy to demonstrate similar simplicity by giving up the vestiges of privilege. They should show externally how seriously they are taking the scandal of abuse."
-- "The pope should invite clerics and hierarchy to spend one day each week in fasting and prayer -- as an expression of public sorrow for failing to safeguard the safety of generations of minors."
Burke has a history with Benedict, and until recently it was a positive one -- which helps explain her disappointment and her rather radical proposal for the pope.
"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."
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 Burke 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," she said. "He hasn't done that."
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.
"I didn't think I could rest until I actually wrote a letter," she said.
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 United States, 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," said Burke, who is a Dame of Malta, the female counterpart of the Knights of Malta, a prominent Catholic charitable organization. "They're using that as a shield for all the other missteps."
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?" she said. "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.
She said, "That's really the only thing you can do, is publicity of some sort, saying, 'Don't you get it?' "
So far, there has been no response from the Vatican to the ideas Burke floated about a penitential wardrobe for the pope. But it's not likely they'd fly anyway.
In 2008, after all the rumors about the pope wearing Prada shoes refused to die, the Vatican daily, L'Osservatore Romano, published an article
denying the reports as "stupid and banal." The pope is a "simple and sober" man whose interest in clothes -- and his bespoke calf leather shoes -- are about tradition rather than "frivolity."
"The Pope is not dressed by Prada but by Christ," the pope's newspaper wrote.