New Credibility Hurdle for Cook
Bernardin Accuser's '85 Statement May Hurt His Case
By Jan Crawford and Lou Carlozo
November 20, 1993
The man accusing Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of sexual abuse may have created credibility problems for himself with a statement eight years ago that he was propositioned by priests, one of his attorneys acknowledged Friday.
But Steven Cook's statement, made in 1985 in a psychiatric profile for the Philadelphia Police Department, doesn't contradict his current claim that he just recently retrieved repressed memories of alleged sexual abuse by Bernardin and another priest from Cincinnati in the 1970s, said Stephen Rubino, his New Jersey attorney.
The 8-year-old statement, however, does raise questions about when he started to remember the alleged sexual abuse.
Cook claimed in a lawsuit filed last week in a Cincinnati federal court that he suppressed memories of alleged sexual abuse by Bernardin and another priest. Those memories, the lawsuit alleges, began resurfacing only last year.
"(The 1985 statement) will go to Steve's credibility. But if I read it carefully, it doesn't seem inconsistent with all he's ever said," said Rubino, who acknowledged that he wasn't aware of the statement until contacted by reporters Thursday.
He said the statement might have more of an impact "if he'd said, 'I was abused by such and such priests and we were bringing a claim,' and had the details of the claim . . . but that's not what it says."
Bernardin said Friday that he wants to meet his accuser. His remarks came at a prayer service Friday with some 300 priests and other supporters at Niles College.
"He's had a very troubled history. I understand he has AIDS, so my heart goes out to him," Bernardin said. "I have a great desire to meet him. I want to pray for him and comfort him."
Despite what appeared to be his calm demeanor since the accusations first became known, Bernardin said he in fact felt "total humiliation" and then anger, which has turned to "ashen sorrow."
The timing of Cook's remembrances is important for two reasons, the most critical of which goes to the very existence of the current lawsuit. It already is fraught with problems because it was filed too late under Ohio law.
To avoid an immediate dismissal, Cook's attorneys first will have to persuade Judge S. Arthur Spiegel to change the statute of limitations for filing suit to the point when Cook discovered the alleged abuse. As the law now stands, Cook should have filed suit before his 20th birthday.
His lawyers' task will be much easier if Cook's memories of the alleged abuse returned only recently, according to attorneys who have been involved in similar lawsuits. If his lawyers can win that initial battle, the timing of Cook's recollection of abuse will be important when a jury weighs whether to believe him, the attorneys say.
Cook alleged in his lawsuit that he began remembering alleged abuse by Bernardin last month and alleged abuse by Rev. Ellis Harsham last year.
In a questionnaire eight years ago, however, Cook wrote that a couple of priests asked him to have oral sex, Rubino said. He did not name the priests in that statement, he said.
The questionnaire was taken to determine if Cook should be sent to jail or to a drug treatment program after his arrest for drug possession in 1984 in Philadelphia, he said. Cook was sentenced to 36 months' probation for that crime, court records show.
James Serritella, a Chicago attorney involved in Bernardin's defense, said he had not seen the questionnaire. But he agreed it raises questions about the timing of the lawsuit, as well as about Cook's credibility.
Three cases are pending before the Ohio Supreme Court that challenge the state's statute of limitations for child sexual abuse cases. Currently, adults suing for alleged abuse that occurred when they were children must do so before their 20th birthday.
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