Steven Cook's Early Years
He Didn't Stand Out, Many Say
By Tom McNamee
November 21, 1993
CINCINNATI — As a child, he stood off to one side while the other boys played baseball — happy to talk, but unwilling to play.
He never hit the big home run or struck out at the plate, never dazzled anybody with his brilliance or stunned them with his stupidity. He was neither a leader nor a follower, a winner nor loser, a class hero nor total geek.
He was just there.
Until now, of course. When, nine days ago, Steven Cook, 34, accused Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of sexually abusing him as a teenager, he forever rose from that vague anonymity that comes from being, in the assessment of others, utterly average. He surely will be remembered now, for better or worse.
"To be honest, I didn't remember who he was until I saw his photo on the news," said the Rev. Michael Balash, one of Cook's fellow seminarians. "Steve did not stand out."
Over six days, the Chicago Sun-Times interviewed scores of Cook's Cincinnati neighbors, classmates and teachers, seeking to understand where he came from and who he is. The picture that emerged is of a young man who skimmed the surface of his first two decades, leaving few ripples on the waters.
Cook grew up in a semirural section of west suburban Cincinnati, in a little ranch house at the top of a hill, across a gravel lane from a horse farm. His parents, Donald and Mary, owned a small printing business, and he had an older sister, Sue, who, according to a next-door neighbor, is married and living out of state.
The family was strongly religious, living at the heart of Cincinnati's mainstream Catholic culture.
The children attended St. Jude Elementary School, riding the two miles on a bus each morning, and Mary Cook, as a eucharist minister of the Roman Catholic Church, had permission of the church to distribute holy communion.
Standing above the shrubbery in front of the family house is a statue of St. Francis of Assisi.
From an early age, neighborhood acquaintances recall, Cook talked of becoming a priest. Indeed, while he was slow to play sports or join in other organized youth activities, he was drawn to the life at St. Jude. While in the eighth grade, he was a member of the St. Jude Youth Organization, which sponsored dances and the like, and he worked at the church on bingo nights — for $ 1 an hour.
Cook, speaking at a press conference last week, said he recognized his homosex
uality when he was 21, but several of his St. Jude classmates say he was razzed about possibly being gay as early as grammar school.
"It was just his mannerisms," said Stephen Fricker, a classmate of Cook's both in grammar school and high school. "He talked funny, and people called him 'fag.' I felt sorry for him."
Another St. Jude classmate, Mel Summe, added: "He was a momma's boy, but a real good kid."
An anonymous high-schooler At Elder High School, the razzing increased a bit, but so did his general anonymity. He was one student among 1,600 at Elder, and he did almost nothing — good or bad — to distinguish himself. He sang in the glee club, had a bit role in a school production of the musical "1776," and, as a senior, tutored a freshman.
Elder, located on Cincinnati's old and heavily Catholic west side, was the natural choice for Cook. It is one of Cincinnati's largest and most beloved Catholic schools, equivalent perhaps to Chicago's De LaSalle High in its ability to confer the preferred pedigree for a life in local politics or the church.
In the suspense novels of Cincinnati writer Albert Pyle, his fictional protagonist, Sgt. Caesar Frank, complains constantly that he never will get ahead in the Cincin nati Police Department because he did not go to Elder.
Cook insists today that it was during his last two years at Elder — when he was visiting St. Gregory College Seminary on weekends to learn about the priesthood — that Bernardin and another priest abused him. The other priest, the Rev. Ellis Harsham, "plied" him with "alcohol, marijuana and pornography" and had sex with him on numerous occasions, Cook claims in his lawsuit, and once took him to Bernardin's home, where Bernardin allegedly abused him.
Bernardin then was the archbishop of Cincinnati.
But if Cook indeed was a troubled boy during his years at Elder, few of his classmates and teachers — including 10 students from his homeroom — took notice. On the contrary, they say today, as best they can remember, Cook was relaxed and friendly.
Gil Wendling, Cook's world cultures teacher in his junior year, described Cook as a "relatively good student, above average, who did his work."
After graduating from Elder in 1977, Cook enrolled at St. Gregory's, where the student body, numbering only 100, lived on campus. At that time, St. Gregory's was Cincinnati's only Catholic seminary, housed in a beautifully detailed, blocklong sandstone building on 75 acres.
Here again, Cook made little impression on his teachers or classmates, with a couple of exceptions.
One classmate, who asked not to be named, said: "I did not like Steve. I remember him as being immature. . . . He was quite confident, quite high on himself, and very interested in his own advancement."
The classmate said Cook "preened" a lot and had a "catty" habit of talking down others behind their backs.
"He wasn't exceptional, but he wasn't a bad kid," said the Rev. Timothy Kallaher, who had Cook in his French class. "You remember the best ones, or the ones who keep up with you over the years."
In 1980, at the end of Cook's first two years at St. Gregory's, the seminary was closed — a victim of declining enrollment — and Cook rejected a suggestion that he transfer to a seminary in Columbus. By this time, he said last week, he had become soured on the Catholic Church.
"I really left the church and all that and became atheistic," he said at the press conference. "I was very angry."
That same summer — on Aug. 19, 1980 — Cook's father was killed in a car crash. According to local news reports, his car was hit broadside when he ran a red light. Cook's mother also was injured.
Cook enrolled that fall at Xavier College, a Catholic school in Cincinnati, attending classes at the satellite Edgecliff campus. He majored in psychology and was graduated in 1982.
His schooling over, Cook immediately hit the road. He lived eight months in Florida and eight months in Washington, D.C., and settled in Philadelphia in 1983. He worked in retail and was a social worker and drug counselor. In 1984, his lawyers confirm, he was arrested for drug possession, did not contest the charge, and was sentenced to three years' probation.
Mother stays secluded In a mental health questionnaire he filled out after being arrested, according to a TV news report, Cook said that when he was 16 two priests got him drunk and tried to perform oral sex on him. He also said it was his father's sudden death that caused him to turn to drugs and alcohol.
Now unemployed, Cook said he is dying of AIDS.
In Cincinnati today, only Mary Cook, 63, remains, still living in the house on the hill. She keeps the blinds drawn night and day and seldom steps outside. When she answered the door the other day, after peeking out from behind a blind, she looked tired and sad, and silently waved a visitor away. She believes and supports Steven, her son's attorneys said, but would rather not talk about it all.
Mary Cook's neighbors speculated that Mrs. Cook is avoiding them now, perhaps fearful of their wrath. But several of them said she need not worry.
"I'll tell you the truth, I feel sorry for her," said James Hewob, a retired farmer at the end of the road. "I wouldn't avoid his mom for the world. She needs help now."
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