Sex abuse allegations against cardinal may put issue back on bishops' agenda

November 14, 1993|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Staff Writer

Sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests was not given a prominent place on the agenda for the meeting of bishops beginning tomorrow in Washington, but an abuse allegation against one of the church's most influential leaders is sure to cast a shadow over the proceedings.

The church did not expect its annual conference to be dominated by the sex-abuse issue this year the way it was last November when abuse victims demonstrated in front of the meeting site.

A lawsuit last week naming Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin may change the bishops' priorities.

Marriage tops agenda

At the top of the prepared agenda for the four-day meeting is a paper on the sanctity and importance of Christian marriage. Cardinal Bernardin, 65, long an influential leader of the progressive wing of the hierarchy, is scheduled to present it for approval by about 275 members of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The document was written by the bishops' Committee on Marriage and Family chaired by Cardinal Bernardin.

The cardinal, who regularly takes a leadership role in the deliberations of the bishops, was accused in a civil suit last week of sexually abusing a teen-ager in the 1970s. The cardinal flatly denied the accusation. He is the highest-ranking official of the Roman Catholic Church ever to be accused in such a case.

The lawsuit, filed in Cincinnati by Steven J. Cook, 34, of Ventnor, N.J., alleges that he was abused between 1975 and 1977 while he was attending a program at a Cincinnati seminary. Mr. Cook seeks $10 million in damages.

Cardinal Bernardin, who was archbishop of Cincinnati at the time, said Friday, "While I have not seen the suit and I do not know the details of the allegation, there is one thing I do know, and I state this categorically: I have never abused anyone in all my life, anywhere, any time, any place."

Support for cardinal

Vatican Radio threw its support yesterday behind Cardinal Bernardin. It carried parts of the cardinal's denial of the allegations and added, "It has been observed by a number of people that accusations of this kind are, at times, aimed at American priests in order to receive compensation money."

Among Cardinal Bernardin's efforts as a leader of the Catholic Church was his establishment last year of more open, more comprehensive measures to deal with priests' sexual abuse of children in the Chicago archdiocese. Many church progressives praised it as a model for other dioceses.

The policy went beyond legal requirements, setting up an independent board to investigate complaints that a priest had molested a child. A 24-hour toll-free hot line was set up to receive such complaints and the cardinal stipulated that all allegations must be reported to a state agency handling child-abuse cases.

Sex abuse report due

At the Washington meeting, the bishops will hear a preliminary report by their Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse. Its chairman is Bishop John Kinney of Bismarck, N.D.

Commenting recently on a background paper on past cases of priests' abuse prepared for the hierarchy, Bishop Kinney said his committee thought it would be useful "to have this reminder in writing of how much thought and effort had been devoted to this problem since its dimensions became apparent in the 1980s."

He said his committee has decided not to rush its final recommendations.

"The committee understands the urgency of dealing with the problem of sexual abuse by the clergy," Bishop Kinney said. "But it is also determined to go about its mandate thoroughly and to develop the expertise necessary to make the results of its work effective in the long term as well as the short term."

Meanwhile, alleged victims of sexual abuse by priests asked the bishops yesterday to change their focus from concern for abusers to concern about the needs of the abused.

"We feel the bishops are putting their time and energy and focus on the priests, and we feel the needs of the victims are falling by the wayside," said Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivor Network of those Abused by Priests.

A decade of scandal

Over the past decade, some 400 Roman Catholic priests were reported to church or civil authorities for allegedly molesting youths and most of the priests were said to have had more than one victim. Estimates of the church's financial losses -- in out-of-court settlements, legal expenses and medical treatment for the abusers -- went as high as $400 million.

Just last week, an agreement to pay more than $8 million in settlements by the Servants of the Paraclete Treatment Center in Jemez Springs, N.M., was reported by an attorney for 25 people who said they had been abused by a priest treated there for pedophilia.

Protest yields results

The naming of Bishop Kinney's committee was partly the result of the publicity that resulted from the demonstration last year by sex-abuse victims in front of the Washington meeting site, the Omni Shoreham Hotel.

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