Archbishop Raymond Burke might be a favored son of the Vatican, but interviews with more than a dozen priests reveal that as father to his former flock in La Crosse, his neo-conservative eccentricities alienated a large number of the clergy and the laity alike.
"He's left a presbyterate that's demoralized and divided," says one former diocesan priest who spoke to Riverfront Times on condition he not be named in print. "For many years the priests in La Crosse were very unified. We didn't agree with one another, but anybody could sit down with anybody and carry on a civil conversation. That's history now, and I lay that at the doorstep of Ray Burke."
So strongly did some priests feel about Burke that at least two left the diocese in protest. "I can no longer minister as a priest in this diocese and retain a sense of integrity," writes Richard Dickman, former pastor of St. Mary Parish in Tomah, Wisconsin, in a letter to parishioners explaining his departure in 2001. "I find that my conscience is in conflict with the vision of ministry characterized by the bishop I have promised to obey. I am in an impossible position."
Certainly, Burke's construction of the $25 million Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe drew wide opposition, and his abrupt withdrawal from Church World Services' annual Crop Walk made him more than a few enemies. But it was his gathering of fringe religious orders to the diocese that alienated many priests.
"He brought in any number of people -- hermits we called them, or consecrated virgins and religious orders of one and two and three people," says the priest who requested anonymity. "They were just -- forgive me for saying so -- but to most of us they were wackos. They're just psychologically not well equipped, and he brought these people in because theologically they agree with him."
At times his theological allegiance with these orders placed Bishop Burke in some compromising positions. Most striking, perhaps, was the case of Sister Julie Green, a member of the Franciscan Servants of Jesus:
"Julie Green is living a lie!" writes Mary Therese Helmueller in an October 25, 2002, letter to Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, Papal Nuncio to the United States. "[She] is a transsexual, a biological male. He is really Joel Green, who had a sex operation to make him physically appear as a woman.... I fear that The Church in America will suffer another 'sex scandal' if Julie Green continues to be recognized as a Catholic Religious Sister, and if Bishop Raymond L. Burke receives his final vows, as a religious sister, on November 23rd, 2002."
Montalvo forwarded the letter to Burke, who on November 20, 2002, replied to Helmueller. "With regard to Sister Julie Green, F.S.J., the recognition of the association of the faithful which she and Sister Anne LeBlanc founded was granted only after consultation with the Holy See," he writes. "These are matters which are confidential and do not admit of any further comment.... I can assure you that Sister Julie Green in no way espouses a sex change operation as right or good. In fact, she holds it to be seriously disordered. Therefore, I caution you very much about the rash judgments which you made in your letter to the Apostolic Nuncio."
Adds Burke: "I express my surprise that, when you had questions about Sister Julie Green, you did not, in accord with the teaching of our Lord, address the matter to me directly."
Green and the Franciscan Servants weren't the only controversial religious order with which Burke allied himself. In the late 1990s, the bishop combined the parishes of St. Mary and St. James in Wausau, Wisconsin. The two parishes formed the Resurrection Parish at what was formerly St. James' Parish.
St. Mary's was sold. Burke then asked the conservative Latin-rite religious order, Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, to perform the Tridentine Mass at what was formerly St. Mary's. In February 2002, the order's superior, Monsignor Timothy Svea, pleaded guilty to exposing himself to and molesting teenage boys.
"What never really got any attention was that Bishop Burke brought them in," says a second priest who asked not to be named. "That's really a sore point for a lot of people in Wausau."