I've Led a Chaste Life, Bernardin Says
Nonetheless, the spiritual leader to 2.3 million Roman Catholics in the Chicago area said he was submitting himself to a process that he had established last year to review allegations of clergy sexual abuse against minors.
When Bernardin overhauled the archdiocese's policies for handling such charges, in the wake of a spate of sex-abuse allegations against Chicago-area priests, he allowed for the possibility that he might one day be so accused.
Friday, that possibility became reality.
Steven J. Cook, 34, of Philadelphia filed a civil lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati alleging that Bernardin and another priest sexually abused him from 1975 to 1977.
At the time of the alleged incidents, Cook was a teenage pre-seminary student in Cincinnati. Bernardin was archbishop of Cincinnati, the post he held for a decade before succeeding the late Cardinal John Cody in 1982 as Chicago's Roman Catholic leader.
The charges mark the third time in a year that Bernardin has faced sexual misconduct allegations, the 65-year-old cardinal revealed at a Friday news conference.
In the two earlier cases, letters sent to the archdiocese accused Bernardin of sexual misconduct. In one case, a woman alleged that Bernardin had engaged in satanic rituals and abused her in the 1950s in South Carolina. In the other case, Bernardin was accused of engaging in an adult orgy.
Bernardin categorically dismissed both earlier charges as untrue, and an archdiocesan spokeswoman said both allegations were dropped after church investigations.
Cook's charges are the first time that accusations of sexual impropriety against Bernardin have been formalized in a lawsuit. Even so, they are based on vague and legally questionable repressed memories that Cook said he began to recall only recently.
Nonetheless, the sensational charges shook Roman Catholics here and across the country. Bernardin becomes the highest-ranking official of the country's largest religious denomination to be accused of sexual abuse.
Cook's allegations, which are not backed up by criminal charges or criminal investigations, also are especially sensational given Bernardin's overhauling of his archdiocese's policy for handling sex-abuse charges. The new procedure has been hailed as a model for churches nationwide.
Cook's 21-page lawsuit seeks $10 million in damages from Bernardin; Rev. Ellis Harsham, the other priest he says abused him; the Cincinnati archdiocese; and other church officials.
He accused Bernardin and Harsham of sexually abusing him in either his junior or senior year at Elder High School in Cincinnati, after he had been invited to participate in the pre-seminary program at the now defunct St. Gregory Seminary in Mt. Washington, a Cincinnati neighborhood.
Cook alleged that Harsham repeatedly sexually abused him, often after providing him with alcohol, marijuana and pornography. Cook alleged that Bernardin abused him after a meeting in Bernardin's archdiocesan office.
The suit said Cook suppressed the memories of Harsham's alleged abuse until 1992, when his memory gradually but inexplicably returned. And only last month did he begin to recall alleged sexual abuse by Bernardin, the suit said.
Cook's suit said he suffers from "psychological infirmities" and "sexual compulsion," which he attributes to his alleged abuse.
Attempts by the Tribune to reach Cook at his Philadelphia home and his attorney, Stephen Rubino, at his New Jersey office were unsuccessful Friday.
Bernardin said he doesn't remember Cook. When one reporter said Cook had a book signed by Bernardin and a photo of them together, Bernardin replied, "I don't understand that."
"Everything that is in that suit about me is totally untrue, totally false," Bernardin said.
But, following the policy that he established last year, Bernardin said he already had forwarded the allegations to a fitness review board that examines allegations of priests sexually abusing minors.
Asked whether he would step down pending the archdiocese's investigation, Bernardin said, "No, because priests are not asked to step down until a preliminary review is made."
The review board consists of three priests, a nun and five laypeople. It determines whether there is reasonable cause to suspect that a priest has committed sexual misconduct. If so, the board may recommend suspension. If the accused is the cardinal, rules allow the archdiocesan chancellor to suspend him.
The review board has been used in the last year after the Chicago archdiocese was rocked by allegations of clergy sexual misconduct of children. The allegations were often leveled in criminal charges.
But Joseph Deters, the prosecutor in Hamilton County, Ohio, said no criminal charges will be filed as a result of Cook's civil suit, in part because the statute of limitations for sexual assault has expired. That period in Ohio is six years, and Cook's allegations come at least 16 years after the alleged abuse.
In addition, Deters said, other investigations of alleged sexual abuse by Cincinnati-area priests have never turned up any evidence against Bernardin.
Bernardin was calm Friday as he discussed the lawsuit with reporters packed into a small office at archdiocesan headquarters, 155 E. Superior St. Harsham, now a priest at a church in Beavercreek, Ohio, was out of town Friday and could not be reached for comment.
Bernardin said that in 42 years as a priest, 28 of them as a bishop, he has been accused of sexual abuse three times, all in the past year. In addition to Friday's suit, Bernardin said he received letters from two people outside the archdiocese, a woman who tried to link him to a satanic ritual of abuse and "someone that accused me of engaging in an orgy."
Maria Salemi, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said the charge involving satanic worship was forwarded to the new clergy sex-abuse panel, but the investigation was dropped when the letter writer refused to cooperate with the board.
Salemi said the allegation that Bernardin engaged in an orgy was handled by other archdiocese investigators because it did not involve minors.
But she said the archdiocese proved through airline records that Bernardin "could not have been present at the alleged incident."
Regardless of the outcome of the suit, Bernardin was asked how he felt about being tainted by the sheer volume of publicity and how such "guilt by association" would impact on his leadership.
He said he would send a message to be read in parishes this weekend, when he heads to Washington for a national conference of U.S. bishops.
"In the final analysis, I'm not really concerned about myself," he said. "I know that I am innocent. I'm concerned about my people, the people that I love."
At the noon mass Friday at Holy Name Cathedral, attended by about 60 people, Deacon Mike McCloskey's homily did not mention Bernardin by name but described how the church has faced allegations of wrongdoing throughout history.
"When I heard these allegations last night, I went right to the Bible and I said, 'What have we got to hear from God?' " McCloskey said following the mass. "I couldn't stand up today and say these accusations are false, but I can say God is going to get us through."
Parishioners at the mass said they were appalled by the accusations against Bernardin.
"I think it's totally false. I just don't believe it," said Mary Mellett, who has attended the church for 20 years. "I don't want to believe any of the stuff about priests."
But Jeanne Miller, president of the Victims of Clergy Abuse Linkup, a victim advocacy group, while declining to comment on the allegations against Bernardin, called for a boycott of Christmas donations to the Catholic Church until it accepts "accountability" for the actions of troubled priests.
In Cincinnati, church officials who knew and worked with Bernardin reacted with disbelief.
"I can't believe he's implicated in this kind of way because it's totally out of character with what I know about him," said Rev. Rick Marzheuser, who was ordained by Bernardin in 1977.
As for Bernardin's reaction, Marzheuser said, "He's a sensitive person-this is going to crush him."
Tribune staff writers Robert Davis, Sarah Talalay, Cheryl Lavin and Rob
Karwath in Chicago and Lou Carlozo in Philadelphia contributed to this
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