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Suit Accuses Chicago’s Cardinal of Molestation : Abuse: Ex-seminarian charges Catholic leader with sexual misconduct. The prelate emphatically denies the charge.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, one of the most prominent Roman Catholic prelates in the United States and a leading voice against sexual abuse by the clergy, was accused Friday by a former high school seminarian of molesting him in the mid-1970s. Bernardin unequivocally denied the charges.

“The allegations are totally untrue. They’re categorically false,” Bernardin told reporters at the Chicago archdiocesan chancery. “I have never abused anyone, at any time and at any place.”

Bernardin was ordained into the priesthood 42 years ago and became a cardinal in 1983.

The accusations against him--certain to further rock a church that is already shaken by cases of sexual misconduct involving other clergy--were contained in a $10-million lawsuit filed Friday in U.S. Southern District Court in Cincinnati by Steven J. Cook of Philadelphia.

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Cook, 34, also charged in the lawsuit that Father Ellis N. Harsham, then a priest at St. Gregory’s seminary in Cincinnati, repeatedly engaged in sexual acts with him between 1975 and 1977 when he was about 17 years old. Harsham could not be reached for comment.

Cook also alleged that Harsham delivered him to Bernardin’s private quarters when Bernardin was archbishop of Cincinnati. It was there, he said, that Bernardin fondled and sodomized him. Cook further charged that Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk and Father Francis W. Voellmecke, the former rector of St. Gregory’s along with Bernardin, destroyed records and covered up Harsham’s dismissal from the seminary, now known as the Athenaeum of Ohio, “for sexual misconduct with seminarians.”

Pilarczyk said Friday that the archdiocese investigated Cook’s allegations against Harsham earlier this year but “found insufficient basis upon which to substantiate the allegation.” Pilarczyk said he believed that the charges “are rubbish and deserving of nothing but contempt.”

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles said Friday that he feels “unflinching friendship” and has “limitless confidence” in Bernardin’s integrity.

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“I know him too well to believe that any of these outrageous allegations could have any basis in fact,” Mahony said. “I fear that we are reaching a new level of contempt when anyone can bring unfounded charges against church leaders of such integrity.”

Cook’s attorney, Stephen C. Rubino of Ventnor, N.J., a former Florida prosecutor who has represented other clients in lawsuits against the church, would permit no interviews with his client other than one taped in recent weeks by CNN and broadcast Friday.

Neither Rubino nor Cook, in his television interview, would disclose any information about Cook’s life now, other than to say he has AIDS.

But when asked about the reported sexual abuse in the interview, Cook said: “I don’t really know if you can put words to describe it, what that pain is like. It shatters your world, it shatters your soul, it shatters your life. (Bernardin) has to pay a price. (Bernardin and Harsham) have to be accountable for their behavior.”

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It was not until 1992 that Cook “started to recall incidents of sexual abuse” by Harsham, his attorney said. Additional memories resurfaced this year, the attorney said, including recollections of being abused by Bernardin.

Claims of a recovered memory have been the basis of numerous other allegations of child abuse against the church. But such claims remain controversial, according to Jason Berry, author of an authoritative book published last year on clergy sexual abuse.

“That will easily be the most disputed plank in the lawsuit,” Berry said Friday.

Appearing before the crowd of reporters, Bernardin seemed calm but at times closed his eyes as he listened to questions. He said he did not remember Cook and was flabbergasted and hurt by the accusation. During his tenure as archbishop of Cincinnati, Bernardin said, he was not aware of any sexual abuse problems at St. Gregory’s.

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“I’m 65 years old and I can tell you that all my life I have lived a chaste and celibate life,” said Bernardin, who has headed the 2.3-million-member Chicago archdiocese, the nation’s second largest, since 1982.

Asked why anyone would make such an accusation, Bernardin replied: “It leaves me in a state of bewilderment. I can’t judge the motivation of this man. All I can say is that I am not guilty of what he alleges. I can say that with total confidence.”

Then, he added: “How would you feel if such an allegation were made against you. . . . My mind and my conscience tells me what the facts are. But I also have feelings. I have a heart and so I feel it.”

The lawsuit was filed just three days before the annual fall meeting in Washington of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, which is scheduled to hear an update on the U.S. church’s efforts to stop clergy sexual abuse and to aid victims.

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Bishops will also hear the results of efforts by a committee of U.S. bishops and Vatican officials to cut through the church’s bureaucracy and give U.S. bishops greater autonomy from Rome in defrocking priests who are found guilty of sexual abuse.

As archbishop of Chicago, Bernardin last year implemented what is widely viewed as the most comprehensive policies in the U.S. church to deal with allegations of pedophilia by clergy.

Stammer reported from Los Angeles and Braun from Chicago. Also contributing to this story were Times staff writer Judy Pasternak and researcher Tracy Shryer in Chicago.


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