When a Cardinal is Accused of Sex Abuse

March 06, 1994|By FRANK P.L. SOMERVILLE

It should have come as no surprise that Roman Catholic Church leaders vented some righteous indignation and criticism of the press last week in the wake of Monday's end to sexual abuse charges against Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.

Archbishop William H. Keeler of Baltimore, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, had presaged the reaction in November, when a man dying of AIDS made his shocking accusations in a $10 million lawsuit.

Setting off a standing ovation for Cardinal Bernardin at the November meeting of the Catholic hierarchy in Washington, Archbishop Keeler had assured the popular and influential Chicago prelate of the church's "full support" and expressed the certainty that he would be vindicated.

Devoting the bulk of his remarks as elected head of the conference to an attack on the news media for what he called negative and shallow reporting, the Baltimore churchman told the assembled cardinals, archbishops and bishops, "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."

Archbishop Keeler was particularly critical of the CNN television network, although he also had some barbs for NBC, whose "Today" program, he said, had given him only 30 seconds during the pope's visit to Denver in August to explain the Catholic Church's position on abortion, birth control, celibacy and the male priesthood.

Said the archbishop, "The glib answers they seek to important questions leave no room for detail and nuance, no room for the whole universe of concerns on which the Holy Father challenges all humanity."

Against this background of distrust of the press, Archbishop Keeler's comments last week were to be expected. Were they justified?

Yes and no.

Richard Schwarzlose, a professor of journalism history, law and ethics at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, told the Associated Press that, in his opinion, the reporters' handling of the allegations against Cardinal Bernardin was generally fair.

"Only a decade or two ago," the professor said, "a lawsuit like this would probably never have been filed, and if it were it probably wouldn't be covered. Back then, there was what would have been called a 'gentlemen's agreement.' Maybe we'd call it a 'cover-up' today."

The fact is that the climate of cynicism and suspicion in which Cardinal Bernardin was forced to defend his innocence was created by the church authorities themselves through their years of denial, cover-up and inaction in the face of clear evidence of priests' abuse of children.

When the accusations against the cardinal surfaced in November, there was a rush to judgment on all sides. A Vatican official had quickly termed the allegations "filthy, worthy only of disdain." On the sidewalk outside the bishops' hotel in Washington, representatives of a national organization of victims priests' abuse criticized the Vatican and some of the %o American bishops for what was described as "vicious" and "hostile" language about the cardinal's accuser.

Last week, a spokesman for the victims' organization -- the Chicago-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP -- praised Cardinal Bernardin's magnanimity toward his accuser but cautioned that neither complainants nor the accused can properly be judged before all the evidence is in.

The accuser's suit claiming the cardinal had sodomized him more than 15 years ago was dismissed after the plaintiff admitted that he had no clear memory of the alleged occurrence and that the charges were otherwise unsubstantiated.

Speaking on behalf of the Catholic Church in the United States, Archbishop Keeler said, "While this sad chapter comes to a close for Cardinal Bernardin, it continues to raise troubling questions which must be dealt with.

"Without impugning the seriousness of authentic cases of sexual abuse, important questions remain concerning the role of certain attorneys, psychiatrists and media in bringing reckless charges against innocent people. The role of CNN and others in the accusations made against Cardinal Bernardin is a story deserving of telling.

"Unfortunately, only the media, medical and legal professions can appropriately police themselves. I hope the events surrounding the accusations against Cardinal Bernardin may prove the occasions for honorable people in these professions to begin that introspection, analysis and supervision."

A spokesman for the archbishop said CNN was singled out because it had given what has turned out to be a flimsy lawsuit the kind of continuous and sensational coverage one would expect for a declaration of war. In tandem with the Bernardin story, the cable network aired reports on confirmed cases of pedophilia among Catholic priests under the heading, "Fall from Grace," he said.

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