Thursday, July 04, 2024

Chicago archdiocese silent on donations from convicted politician

The Archdiocese of Chicago is facing pressure to return tens of thousands in donations from a city politician convicted of corruption, and facing prison time.

But while donations remain unreturned, several Church officials, including Milwaukee’s Archbishop Jerome Listecki, wrote letters to a judge earlier this year, asking that former Chicago alderman Edward Burke be given a light prison sentence, and touting his exemplary status as a Catholic.

While the convicted former alderman steered more than $100,000 in campaign funds to Catholic projects, his wife Anne Burke was the initial leader of the USCCB’s National Review Board, serving as interim chair of the national child protection board from 2002 until 2004.

Edward Burke, 80, was sentenced June 24 to two years in prison, after he was convicted on 13 counts of racketeering, bribery, and extortion — in charges that the longtime alderman lined up public funds for companies which paid off his law firm, shook down public contractors to do business with his firm, accepted a bribe for a federal program contract, and threatened the Chicago Field Museum with opposing a fee increase measure when it failed to help him place a son’s friend in an internship.

Prosecutors, calling Burke “greedy,” and insisting that he had not shown “a single ounce of remorse,” initially asked federal judge Virginia Kendall to sentence the politician to 10 years in federal prison. 

Kendall instead sentenced Burke to two years of incarceration, citing the number of letters she had received praising Burke’s involvement in the local community.

One letter came from Archbishop Listecki, who wrote that Burke was “a man dedicated to the common good” with a commitment to “charitable generosity.”

Listecki, who served as a Chicago auxiliary bishop from 2001 until 2004, wrote that he had got to know Burke “when I was a priest and auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago.”

“He and his family were always involved with various charities and supportive of the many civic events,” the archbishop wrote in a March 25 letter.

“I was always impressed by his families [sic] involvement in the Church both locally and nationally,” Listecki added, in a letter he called a “plea for leniency.”

Another letter came from Fr. Clete Kiley, a Chicago priest who was, as a USCCB staffer in the early 2000s, charged with coordinating the U.S. bishops’ conference response to emerging sexual abuse scandals.

Kiley said the former alderman, who had once been a seminarian at Chicago’s Quigley Prep high school seminary, had helped the Church to confront the problem of clerical sexual abuse.

Kiley told the judge that when Anne Burke, the former alderman’s wife, was in 2002 made interim chair of the first National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People, which monitors compliance with conference policies and particular laws on abuse protection, the former alderman “was right there in his support” of his wife’s efforts, demonstrating “moral rightness and courage.” 

With Edward Burke as an alderman and Anne Burke a judge — who would eventually become chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court — both Burkes “lent their moral credibility to confronting [the] moral nightmare” of clerical sexual abuse, the priest said.  

Burke did not submit a plea for leniency from Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich, who has had a friendship with Burke and his wife since his 2016 arrival in the Archdiocese of Chicago — and who has credited the Burkes with introducing him to influential politicians and civic leaders in Chicago.

But in total, more than a dozen letters came from Chicago area clerics

One came from Fr. Michael Pfleger, the well-known “senior pastor” of St. Sabina’s parish in south Chicago.

Pfleger said that Burke “has never asked for anything,” is “deeply committed to his faith,” and is “honest, helpful, and knowledgeable.” 

When Burke was indicted for corruption charges in 2019, the Archdiocese of Chicago told local reporters that it had not decided whether to return contributions made to Catholic organizations by Burke’s campaign organization — and that it would “await the outcome of the case” before deciding whether to return any donations, including a $10,000 donation made by Burke’s campaign to an archdiocesan capital campaign, called “To Teach Who Christ Is.”

According to campaign finance records, Burke’s campaigns and campaign organizations have donated more than $100,000 in total donations to Catholic parishes, schools, and other groups in the archdiocese, including $50,000 since the politician’s indictment, WBEZ reported.

Some donations were made to schools and parishes administered by the archdiocese, while others went to institutions supported by religious orders.

But with now Burke now convicted and sentenced to prison time, the archdiocese has not responded to questions from The Pillar regarding whether any of those funds will be returned — especially given concerns that campaign funds functioned as pay-to-play accounts for businesses hoping for city contracts, or otherwise were supplied by Burke’s criminal activity.

But Robert Warren, a retired IRS investigator and professor of accounting at Radford University, said that with the state of those donations unclear, archdiocesan clerics should have refrained from intervening in Burke’s sentencing.

“I believe that these letters are imprudent for several reasons,” Warren told The Pillar. 

“First, Mr. Burke fought his public corruption case for years and thus did not demonstrate actual contrition until he was indicted, arraigned, tried and convicted. Second, the Church received more than $100,000 of possibly ill-gotten gain from Mr. Burke's campaign fund, so Church leaders cannot say that their ministries did not benefit from the fraud. Third, the Church has demonstrated little transparency in giving an account to the lay faithful over how much money was donated by Mr. Burke, how these funds were used, and whether they intend to return the money to help Mr. Burke fulfill restitution and fines imposed by the court.”

Warren pointed out that bishops and other clerics are often asked to write letters on behalf of convicted criminals, explaining that “the effect of these letters on the ultimate sentence probably varies from judge to judge.”

The investigator pointed out several cases in which bishops and other priests intervened to plead for light sentences for financial criminals, including several cases in which priests were facing prison, for crimes committed against the Church.

Warren cautioned against the practice, noting that dioceses should be aware of when they have conflicts-of-interest, including those caused by donations received from possible criminal activity.

He also argued that clerics should be concerned with seeing just sentences in all financial cases.

“The judge should deliver a sentence that both deters the particular defendant from committing the crime again, and also serve as a deterrent for all those in a similar position for committing a similar crime,” Warren said.

Burke, a Chicago alderman for more than five decades, is the 10th Chicago alderperson sentenced to prison since 2006.