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From Rumors to News: Cardinal Burke Sent to Guam

Every time it seems that things can’t get weirder in the Catholic Church, they do.

As Oakes Spalding reported yesterday, rumors have been flying about major things happening behind the scenes in Rome. Among these rumors are several related to Cardinal Burke, some indicating that he had been “silenced”; others saying that he had begin cancelling scheduled engagements. Several days ago, I received word that a well-placed source had revealed that Cardinal Burke was being recalled to Rome to be sent immediately to Guam to deal with the deposition of a bishop there.

I want to stop for a moment to say something important on this topic: it is difficult to explain, to those accustomed to the fact-based reporting standards of Western Journalism, that intrigue and rumor are the primary vehicles of information transfer in the world’s oldest bureaucracy. Press conferences in Rome, when they happen (or when their principals bother to show up) are just the tiny tips of rather substantial icebergs. Everyone is always playing the long game at the Vatican. Politics, positioning, power-plays. I recently joked that if we didn’t report on Vatican rumors, there wouldn’t be anything about the Vatican to report on at all. (After all, we can’t even get a direct answer from the pope to the dubia. Trying to nail down solid information is like grasping at shadows.)

We are not, at this phase of our existence as a publication, a full-fledged news shop. We don’t have journalists we can send around the world to investigate stories, even if we could afford to. We rely on a number of international relationships, inside sources, existing reporting, and the like. We are given a great deal of information all the time by our contacts, and we have to sift through it for what we can ethically share. We try very hard to leave as much hearsay as possible on the cutting room floor, seeking out only the most credible information to pass on. Just this morning, in fact, I found myself turning down an extremely important piece of news given to me by someone trustworthy because I don’t want to report these things without a first-hand source. I have no interest in 1P5 becoming, essentially, a Vatican TMZ.

So when I heard about Cardinal Burke being shipped off to Guam, I had to sit on it, even though I was reasonably certain it was true.

And as it turns out, it is:

A tribunal from the Vatican, which will be led by a cardinal, is scheduled to hold a secret hearing on Guam this week to speak to at least one of the victims accusing Archbishop Anthony Apuron of sexual abuse.

Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, a canon lawyer and former head of the Vatican’s supreme court, signed a decree on Feb. 3, 2017, requesting that one of Apuron’s accusers, Roland Sondia, appear personally before Burke later this week on Guam.

The cardinal wrote the decree “in fulfilling the office of judge.”

Sondia was being summoned “for the purpose of giving testimony” in the Apuron case, according to the decree.

A Vatican equivalent of prosecutor and an advocate for the accused will also hear the accuser’s testimony, according to the decree.

The Vatican case concerning Apuron had a protocol number that may indicate the case involving Apuron was opened in 2008, although it was unclear if the sex-abuse allegations were filed with the Vatican that early. The case is before a Vatican office that deals with “faith and morals.”

Burke further wrote that he will be talking to some of Apuron’s accusers after he was delegated by Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, who leads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Am I the only one who finds this incredibly suspicious?

Cardinal Burke’s official functions within the Church have been effectively reduced to zero. He is no longer at the Apostolic Signatura, the Church’s high court. He has, to my knowledge, been removed from all the curial positions he previously held, including the Congregation for Bishops. He is still listed as the Cardinalis Patronus of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, but after Pope Francis effectively annexed the sovereign body, replaced its Grand Master with a figurehead, restored its most controversial member of the Sovereign Council, appointed a papal delegate who would take over relations between the Vatican and the Ordeer (previously the Cardinal Patron’s job), and saw to it that the forcibly-retired Grand Master placed blame on Cardinal Burke for the whole fiasco, it’s hard to imagine that his role there is anything but nominal from here on out.

So why Burke? And why Guam? I was unable to find a history for Cardinal Burke in dealing with such matters that would make him the logical designee. Does he have experience in this area? And if so, certainly, there are other places where such services are needed — places far less remote. Guam is 7,552 miles from Rome. The only countries further from Rome are Australia and New Zealand, and not by much. Guam is a Micronesian island in the South Pacific, an unincorporated U.S. territory with fewer than 200,000 people and a total land mass of 210 square miles. It is the home of several US military bases, the closest landmass to the Mariana Trench — the deepest known spot in the Ocean — and in an odd tidbit of Church history, the Jesuits were expelled from Guam in 1769 under Spanish law.

Was Burke sent by Müller on his own initiative, or by Müller at the pope’s request? If the former, was this to remove him from Rome for his own good? If the latter, is this a form of exile, like the shipping off of Archbishop Bugnini to be the pro-nuncio to Iran in 1976 after he became inconvenient, and suspected of being a Freemason? Is Burke’s work on the dubia gumming up the machine? Or will Burke only be there for a short time?

Rumors in Rome that something big is coming persist. Is the timing of this dispatch related? Is it an attempt to get him out of the way? Is this a move to break up the Four Cardinals by removing their de facto figurehead from Rome, where he has the greatest visibility and influence?

Unfortunately, at this point in time we have more questions than answers. But this is a story worth keeping an eye on, and we plan to do just that.

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