Sex Abuse Suit Against Chicago Cardinal Dropped : Clergy: Former seminary student says although he believes he was abused, his memory is unreliable. He will pursue case against another priest.


Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, accused last November of sexual abuse, was exonerated of all charges Monday when a former high school seminary student dropped a $10-million lawsuit against the prominent churchman, saying that his memory was unreliable.

Attorneys for Steven J. Cook told a federal court in Cincinnati that although Cook, now 34, believes he had been sexually abused when he was a 17-year-old seminarian in the mid-1970s, he no longer could be sure that it was Bernardin.

Cook’s decision drew expressions of gratitude from Bernardin, the highest-ranking prelate to be accused of sexually abusing minors. From the beginning, he had unequivocally denied the charges. Cook’s action was also certain to again call into question the credibility of charges based on what has become called “recovered memory,” the recollection of painful events years after their occurrence.


In a statement issued after his attorneys met with U.S. District Judge S. Arthur Spiegel in Cincinnati, Cook said that if he knew in November what he now understands about the limitations of recovered memory, he would never have sued Bernardin.

“It has always been my intention to do the right thing,” Cook said in a statement. “I filed the lawsuit against Cardinal Bernardin because I had vivid memories of abuse which I believed to be true. I even subjected myself to two polygraphs.

“Based on the information I have learned since filing the lawsuit, I now realize that the memories which arose during and after hypnosis are unreliable. In fact, if I knew at the time I filed the lawsuit what I know now, I would never have sued Cardinal Bernardin,” Cook said.

However, Cook said he will pursue his suit against Father Ellis N. Harsham of Beavercreek, Ohio, then a priest at St. Gregory’s Seminary in Cincinnati, who was also named in the suit filed in November, along with the seminary and the Cincinnati archdiocese. Harsham has said he is innocent. The case is scheduled to go to trial May 9.

When he made the charges, Cook--a substance-abuse counselor who left his job at a psychiatric hospital in February, 1993, and who said he has AIDS--said that it was not until 1992 when he began to recall incidents of sexual abuse.

Cook first publicly disclosed the charges in a CNN interview last November. “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,” he told the network.

Bernardin said Monday that he had been “totally humiliated” by the attack on his character. He said he has now been “vindicated.” Bernardin has been viewed as one of the leading voices in the U.S. church calling for swift action against priest offenders and help for victims.

“I harbor no ill feelings toward Steven Cook,” Bernardin told a news conference in Chicago. “I have compassion for him. I have prayed for him every day, and I will continue to do so.”

It has been estimated that 10,000 adults in the United States have made recent claims of childhood sexual victimization based on recalled memories. But the issue is controversial among health care professionals.

Psychiatrist John Hochman of Encino, who has written about the subject, said Monday that Cook’s case may point out the limitations of basing charges on recalled memory.

“Once you go through a hypnotic trance and you somehow have a fantasy, it becomes a memory once you’re out of the trance. It seems real, in fact it seems so real you can pass a polygraph,” Hochman said.

Bernardin said, as have others in the church, that he continued to be troubled by “the almost instantaneous judgment made by some that I had fallen from grace.”

In Washington, Archbishop William H. Keeler of Baltimore, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that troubling questions remain.

“Without impugning the seriousness of authentic cases of sexual abuse, important questions remain concerning the role of certain attorneys, psychiatrists and media in bringing reckless charges against innocent people,” Keeler said.

The cable network’s broadcast was itself controversial. The CNN interview had been delayed a few days to coincide with the opening of a national Catholic bishops conference in Washington, a CNN spokeswoman said Monday.

“The role of CNN and others in the accusations made against Cardinal Bernardin is a story deserving of telling. Unfortunately, only the media, medical and legal professions can appropriately police themselves,” Keeler said.

In Chicago, the archdiocese emphasized that the decision by Cook was entirely his own. “The withdrawal of charges is not part of any compromise or settlement. Neither the cardinal nor his attorneys, or anyone else, has offered anything in exchange for the action,” the archdiocese said. Cook confirmed that his action was voluntary.

Times religion writer Larry Stammer reported from Los Angeles and Times researcher Tracy Shryer reported from Chicago.