Bishops stand by accused cardinal Bernardin denies abuse charges at conference

November 16, 1993|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- The National Conference of Catholic Bishops gave Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, accused in a lawsuit of sexually abusing a teen-age seminarian in the 1970s, a ringing vote of confidence in his innocence yesterday.

A standing ovation for the popular cardinal, long an influential leader of the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy, was set off by the conference president, Baltimore Archbishop William H. Keeler, who departed from his opening remarks at the U.S. bishops' annual meeting to offer the Chicago prelate "our full support" and assurance that he will be vindicated.

Archbishop Keeler's formal address was devoted almost entirely to an attack on the news media for what he called negative and shallow reporting on the church.

Cardinal Bernardin, 65, stood later before a thick cluster of microphones and television cameras, tightly circled by reporters, to answer a barrage of questions about the $10 million civil suit filed Friday in Cincinnati by 34-year-old Steven Cook, now living in the Philadelphia area.

Never abused anyone

Stating emphatically that he has never sexually abused anyone and has no recollection of ever having met Mr. Cook, Cardinal Bernardin added, "My heart goes out to anyone who has been victimized. If Mr. Cook has been, I am sorry for him."

Asked how his lawyers would respond to the suit, he said, "My life is an open book. And I think that will be my best defense."

Cardinal Bernardin said he did not know if there would be a countersuit by the church, a defensive tactic the victims' groups say is aimed at discouraging victims from making public claims of abuse.

"My integrity and the integrity of the church are at stake, so there

has to be a defense, but I insist that it be in appropriate ways . . . to bring out the truth, and not scare off the true victims," Cardinal Bernardin said. "I'm basically a pastor."

He also said he now has more sympathy than ever for priests who have been falsely accused.

But on the sidewalk outside the conference hotel, representatives of a national organization of victims of priests' abuse, while praising Cardinal Bernardin's record as a sensitive church leader, attacked the Vatican for its "vicious" denunciation of the cardinal's accuser and criticized some of the American bishops for "hostile language."

Support for accuser

Speaking for the nearly 1,300-member, Chicago-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), Mary Staggs of Anaheim, Calif., said, "Yesterday, Vatican radio called the allegations against Cardinal Bernardin 'filthy, worthy only of disdain.' Others who are supportive of the cardinal have made similarly aggressive comments about Steven Cook in recent days."

Ms. Staggs, who said she was molested by an Anaheim priest in the late 1970s when she was 15, said Cardinal Bernardin has the "right to defend himself vigorously" but Steven Cook has an equal right "to press his allegations through our constitutionally guaranteed judicial process."

A short time before, Archbishop Keeler, in his remarks to the assembled hierarchy, had spoken of "unfounded allegations" against priests and bishops and said that "sadly, we hear from around the country that, for whatever reason, such allegations are increasingly being made."

Continuing his attack on television, radio and newspapers for their "pre-programmed Catholic story" of a church "in disarray" -- what he called "a caricature wherein complex issues are crudely stated" -- Archbishop Keeler said, "As we watched the media take up the story of the allegations against Cardinal Bernardin, we also could not fail to note that being first with a story is, for some, a value that outweighs providing the best and most accurate reporting."

Cardinal Bernardin, at his impromptu news conference, said that in all his nearly 28 years as a bishop and a public figure he had never been the target of such allegations until recently.

Other allegations

Mr. Cook's lawsuit is the third effort this year to link him with improper behavior, the cardinal said. One woman accused him of having molested her 35 years ago, he said, and another woman said he had once been part of an orgy.

Both complaints were turned over to a Chicago archdiocesan panel established by the cardinal last year to look into sexual-abuse allegations, but the cases were dropped in the first instance by the accuser and in the second by the panel as outside its purview.

The Steven Cook accusations also were turned over to the panel, which concluded after an inquiry that Cardinal Bernardin is not a risk to children and need not be placed on administrative leave pending further investigation.

In response to further questions, Cardinal Bernardin avoided saying specifically whether he had ever heard of "any problems" concerning the Rev. Ellis Harsham, a priest also accused of sexual abuse in the Steven Cook suit.

But the cardinal stated emphatically, "I do know that the priest and this man [Mr. Cook] never came to my residence" as claimed in the suit.

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