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Sex Abuse Critic to Pope: Swap White Cassock for Black, Lose the Red Shoes

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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."
Pope Benedict
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.

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Anne Burke is right. Jesus blended in with the common people and he scoulded the Pharisees and Sadducees. Jesus was humble and had zeal for His Father's house. If St. Paul and St. Peter were around, the child abusers would not be supported. They would have been excommunicated (even for a short while). The Police would have been called especially since civil authority is of God as Romans 13 1-7 (even paying taxes). Religion has drifted far away from the Spirit of Jesus. In the last days we will be taught more and more by the Holy Spirit. As Christians we are suppose to do and say everything to give glory to God (1 Cor 10:31-33). Our witness as the Body of Christ is very poor. We will all be held accountable someday for every creature as Hebrews 4:13 states. The tradition on men seems to still be above God's laws (ie. fur, bullfighting, farm animals caught in the evil agri-business for our appitites). When is someone going to stand up for Truth and compassion for all?

August 19 2010 at 10:40 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

The Pope is not dressed by christ, but by the people, Everything he has, He has because of Humans.

August 12 2010 at 3:23 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

The Catholic Church needs to be completely reformed from the top. The lavish clothes, palaces and life style of the hierarchy needs to stop beginning with the Pope. It is a scandal to many catholics and others that its' bishops live in opulence and wealth while so many haven't enough to eat. These reforms would be the starting point for a total rejuvenation of the church.

August 03 2010 at 10:12 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Why does everyone want to change The Church? The Church should have been left alone and as it was in 1958. The left wing radical clergy and lay persons who want heaven but not hell and don't want to pay for their sins, have left the Church in turmoil. The Shoes of the Fisherman have always been RED. This is not a fashion statement by Pope Benedict.

August 03 2010 at 8:43 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

When did Jesus ever wear getups like the pope. Maybe he should wear a toga and sandals. The catholic church has no resemblance to how Jesus lived. That's part of the problem.

August 03 2010 at 8:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Ginny's comment

Madam, do YOU wear clothing as the early Christians wore? Are you wearing a toga? Are you a Catholic? Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.....

August 04 2010 at 5:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It's beyond the attire....there needs to be a complete overhaul on everything.

August 03 2010 at 8:18 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to txmjv's comment

Agreed. Time for Vatican III?

August 03 2010 at 8:32 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

I would suggest that all these modern reformists keep missing the point that the Catholic Church is over 2000 years old. The tradition is has is not to keep up with the latest fads but to represent the church founded 2000 years ago. The trappings and clothing in use by the leader of millions of people world wide only detract those whose faith is not grounded the basic truths of the church. But it makes good craic.

August 03 2010 at 8:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I like her idea and I think it is rich in symbolic meaning. Sometimes there is beauty in simplicity.

August 03 2010 at 7:57 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Never mind that the swishy clothes don't indicate repentence, Can you imagine Christ dressed like that? Aren't priests supposed to be Christlike-- as we are called to be also, and isn't the Pope first of all a priest? and shouldn't he be setting an example for all the other priests?

August 03 2010 at 7:50 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to boicepr's comment


August 03 2010 at 8:24 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

BULLSEYE! Right on the money.

August 03 2010 at 8:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I donate plenty of money to the Roman Catholic Church for the poor.... and for the Pope to dress as the Vicar of Christ and the head of the RC Church. All non-Catholics should mind their own business. If someone as unimportant as michelle obama can wear $300.00 sneakers (paid for by the US taxpayer), the Pope certainly can wear Prada shoes from private donations. I'm tired of Catholic bashing.

August 03 2010 at 7:37 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Caroline's comment

Where did you find out that Michelle charges the taxpayers for her shoes?

August 03 2010 at 7:42 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Not to add to the Catholic bashing, BUT..... with all due respect, as far as I know, Mrs. Obama did not do a vow of poverty when her husband became president.
The real issue is not wearing expensive shoes... it's having a little bit of common sense and being sensible to millions of people (many of them dirt-poor), who are expecting someone representing Jesus to act like Jesus.

PS: I am Catholic as well.

August 03 2010 at 8:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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