Angry, Sorrowful Catholics Fear Stigma of Bernardin Abuse Suit
By Louise Kiernan and Paul Sloan
November 15, 1993
By Sunday morning, the words were familiar to most who attended mass.
The letter from Cardinal Joseph Bernardin saying he was innocent of allegations of sexual abuse had been read on television, printed in newspapers and repeated at church services many times since the civil lawsuit accusing Chicago's Roman Catholic leader was filed Friday.
It didn't matter whether the letter was tucked into end-of-mass announcements, as it was at St. Norbert Catholic Church in Northbrook, or used as a prelude to a passionate speech in Bernardin's defense, as it was at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel on Chicago's North Side.
Nothing could diminish the anger and sorrow it aroused in the hearts of those who heard it.
"I felt sick, just sick at heart," said 65-year-old cabinetmaker Larry Kuhr, leaving Mt. Carmel following 8:30 a.m. mass.
For many Chicago area Catholics who attended church Sunday, Bernardin's innocence was not an issue. Virtually everyone who was asked about the case said they believe the charges against him are false. But they worry about how the stigma of sexual abuse will affect the man who is their spiritual leader and the church that is their spiritual refuge.
The claims by 34-year-old Steven Cook, a former pre-seminary student, that Bernardin and another priest abused him from 1975 to 1977, raise the church's ugliest specter against one of its highest ranking U.S. officials.
The charges accuse a leader recognized for his progressiveness in dealing with the issue of sexual abuse and priests, and they come at a time when the problem seems to be at its worst. In the last two years, 23 Chicago priests have been removed from parishes pending investigations of sexual abuse allegations.
"All these things are happening, so it has a context of believability," said Bob Keeley, of Beverly, who was attending mass at St. Barnabas Church in the South Side neighborhood.
"I think the church is getting the hell beat out of it. It's tough to be a church member right now, but it has a certain resilience. I think we'll weather this."
Some tried to bluster through the storm with humor. At Incarnation Church in Palos Heights, 77-year-old member Joe Marshall greeted parishioners with the message, "Don't believe the latest rumor. The pope isn't next."
Without fail, it seemed, he managed to coax laughter out of his listeners, proof, he said, of "how asinine this all is."
But Incarnation's parish is proof of how painful the issue of sexual abuse has become. Last summer, the archdiocese removed Incarnation's associate pastor, Rev. Patrick O'Leary, saying that the 33-year-old priest had displayed inappropriate behavior that showed he was "at risk of sexual misconduct to the children."
No specific charges were ever made against O'Leary, and hundreds of parishioners have joined an unsuccessful campaign to get the priest back. They have criticized the archdiocese-and Bernardin-for overreacting, ruining an innocent man's name out of misplaced concern over sexual misconduct among priests.
"I can't help but feeling there's another power at work here," said church member Linda Terry, 35. "I don't believe the charges are true. But I feel he's getting a taste of what Father Pat went through. He now gets to walk in the same shoes."
Among many of the Chicago area's 2.3 million Catholics, Bernardin is an extremely popular leader, known as a "humble, good man," as Janet Leffleman, a parishioner at St. Joseph Church in Libertyville, put it. Because of this, the charges against him-the chances that his good name will be ruined-hurt even more.
"I believe that Cardinal Bernardin is one of the few clerics I would not believe this about," Leffleman said. "There are not many people who are holy, but he is, and I have met him."
At Mt. Carmel, Rev. Thomas Healy told churchgoers he "felt almost as if someone had died." And some fear Bernardin has lost something irretrievable: his reputation.
"Once a priest is accused of something like this, he is marked for life," said Sister Marguerite Yezek, 72, before 11 a.m. mass at St. Peter's in Skokie. "It doesn't matter if he is guilty or innocent."
Already, this stigma seemed to be at work. "My faith (in Bernardin) has been weakened," acknowledged Ed Riebel, 44, a parishioner at St. Christopher Church in Midlothian, who said admiration for the cardinal prompted his conversion to Catholicism four years ago. "Because I'll always have this nagging doubt even though I want to believe him."
Bernardin was in Washington, D.C., Sunday, attending committee meetings prior to Monday's opening of the 46th annual general meeting of the United States Catholic Conference and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The meeting, which ends Thursday afternoon, was expected to draw some 275 bishops. On the agenda are votes on whether to ask the pope to change some church laws relating to sexual abuse.
On Saturday, members of the bishops' ad hoc committee on sexual abuse met for three hours with representatives from Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, a group of 1,300 people that is trying to push the church to be more sympathetic to victims of clergy abuse and less forgiving of priests.
Bernardin's archdiocesan response to priest sexual abuse has not been ideal, but has been the most forward thinking in the country, said Chicagoan Barbara Blaine, who organized SNAP three years ago. In a way, she said, this has made the allegations harder to take.
"It's difficult when so many victims across the country look at Cardinal Bernardin as the best," she said Sunday, "and then to think that he could do this. It's devastating. It's really sad."
Bernardin was not expected to make any new statements about the lawsuit, said Rev. James J. Close, director of the archdiocese's communications office, who joined Bernardin at the conference to help deal with the expected crush of media at the event.
"His feelings coming out here were very mixed," Close said of Bernardin. "He's concerned about how the allegations affect the flock. And in the bigger picture, he's concerned about how the allegations affect the Catholic Church in America. The upside of it is that the moral support here is tremendous."
Among younger Catholics in Chicago, the blow seemed to hit particularly hard. Sixteen-year-old Grace Altimirano, a junior at all-girls Notre Dame High School, feared that the charges would discourage classmates already struggling with their beliefs. "I know some people will use it as an excuse," she said. "They'll say, 'This isn't helping my faith.' "
Yet, some believe the crisis now facing Chicago's Catholics will ultimately strengthen the church.
"I'm not going to walk away from my religion because of it," said Maria Castaneda, 67, who has been a member of Mt. Carmel since 1951. "I think it will bring people closer to the church, to support him."
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