Ohio Priest Denies Taking Teen Student to Bernardin's Quarters

By Jan Crawford
Chicago Tribune
January 16, 1994

An Ohio priest accused with Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of sexually assaulting a teenager in the late 1970s has denied ever taking the student to Bernardin's private quarters.

That allegation is a key part of Steven J. Cook's lawsuit against Bernardin, who was the archbishop in Cincinnati when Cook was a high school student there. Cook, 34, claims in the lawsuit that Bernardin sexually assaulted him some 17 years ago, after the priest took him to Bernardin's quarters.

Rev. Ellis Harsham's denial of the meeting was contained in an Oct. 1 letter to Stephen Rubino, Cook's attorney. It was one of three letters to Rubino from Rev. Daniel Conlon, chancellor of the Cincinnati archdiocese, that were filed in court Friday.

Cook filed the $10 million lawsuit, which also names the Cincinnati archdiocese and its top officials, in November in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati.

Most of Conlon's October letter focuses on Harsham's contacts with Cook from 1975 to 1977, when Cook was participating in a pre-seminarian program. Harsham admitted he had a "close friendship" with Cook during that time and had engaged in "much casual sexual banter" with him, Conlon said.

Harsham also gave Cook a portion of a pornographic movie, Conlon wrote.

Harsham did admit having a sexual relationship with an adult seminarian, which resulted in his transfer from the seminary, Conlon wrote. But he denied having sexual contact with Cook, he said.

"He acknowledges that the friendship was expressed with hugs, but remembers no kissing," according to the letter.

Efforts to reach Harsham's attorney were unsuccessful.

In the letter, Conlon said Harsham also denied virtually all of Cook's allegations, including taking him to X-rated theaters and nude dancing clubs or giving him drugs.

Conlon eventually met with Cook in the Amtrak lounge of the Philadelphia train station in September and interviewed him for almost two hours, according to court papers filed Friday.

Conlon ultimately concluded in the letter that he found "too many doubts" to substantiate Cook's allegations, although he offered to pay for part of Cook's past and future therapy costs.

"This does not mean that I believe Father Harsham and disbelieve Mr. Cook," Conlon wrote. "I have been around long enough to know that almost anything can happen. This matter is simply not clear enough."

Harsham's denials were in response to allegations contained in a September letter to Conlon from Rubino. In that letter, Rubino provided a highly graphic account of Cook's allegations against Harsham, as well as his resulting sexual compulsions.

Rubino's detailed letter was intended, in part, to further settlement discussions with the Cincinnati archdiocese.

Rubino's letter in September focused on Harsham, since Cook couldn't remember any of the details about the alleged visit to Bernardin's private quarters. When Cook's lawsuit was filed in November, he had remembered the details of the alleged visit.

The private correspondence between Rubino and Conlon provides the most details to date about Cook and Harsham.It also gives a behind-the-scenes look at the the meetings and discussions between the Cincinnati archdiocese official and Cook's representatives, just months before Cook field his suit.


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