Roanoke Times
                 Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: SATURDAY, November 27, 1993                   TAG: 9311270089
SECTION: RELIGION                    PAGE: B-4   EDITION: METRO 
DATELINE:                                 LENGTH: Medium


"Filthy, worthy only of disdain."

That was how Vatican Radio reacted to Stephen Cook's lawsuit charging Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago with sexual abuse. Vatican Radio is the official channel that communicates in 34 languages from the Vatican to church officials, Catholics and other listeners around the world.

"There is something demonic about all of this."

That was Archbishop John Roach's reaction to Cook's allegations. Roach heads the St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese, which, like Chicago, has struggled with clergy sexual abuse cases in recent years.

"As we watched the media take up the story of the allegations against Cardinal Bernardin, we also could not fail to note that being first with a story is, for some, a value that outweighs providing the best and most accurate reporting."

Those remarks were in Baltimore Archbishop William Keeler's opening address at this week's semiannual meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Keeler is its president.

The words of Keeler, Roach and Vatican Radio were among the emotional initial reactions to Cook's accusation. He said it had been a repressed memory of an incident from at least 16 years ago, when Cook was a teen-ager and Bernardin was archbishop of the Cincinnati Archdiocese.

Here are more of the reactions:

David Clohessy commended the "tremendous amount of courage" it takes to file such a suit "in these days of attacks against survivors by the church." As national director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, he called for a thorough investigation of Cook's charges.

Clohessy extended sympathies not to priests or bishops, but to survivors of sexual abuse and to Catholics "who will be shaken by these accusations against one of the folk heroes of the church."

Again, from Vatican Radio: "It has been observed by a number of people that accusations of this kind are, at times, aimed at American priests in order to receive compensation money."

And again, from SNAP: "Stop pointing the finger of blame. Start extending the hand of healing . . . Stop attacking the messenger. Start using the opportunity presented by abuse cases to teach, not reproach."

Viewed in the most sympathetic light, these early responses to the Bernardin suit simply reveal frustrations on both sides. In many instances, priests and clergy-abuse victims have become antagonists. They are suspicious of each other's motives in what has become a drawn-out fight over the way the church handles sexual abuse cases.

Some have suggested that Cook's lawsuit was timed to promote an imminent TV documentary on the abuse issue. Others felt the timing put pressure and a harsh media glare on a national bishops' meeting that otherwise might have given minimal attention to abuse victims.

Amid the bitterness, however, there has been a moderate and conciliatory suggestion on how the church must defend one of its elite top-ranking U.S. cardinals against the sensational accusations:

"It must be done in such a way that is effective, obviously, but in such a way that will not frighten or scare off true victims."

It is arguably the most impressive of Bernardin's many quotes in the week since Cook filed his suit.

By making that statement, he did a critical service to victims of clergy abuse at precisely a time when it might not have been expected of him. He refused to let their legitimate cause be swept away.

In this age of instant communication, many also expect instant explanation and summarization. That does not happen in a lot of news stories. Particularly, it does not happen in those that play out in court and involve one person's word against another's, at least until the process reveals what evidence or corroboration exists.

Until that happens, this is not a story that can be neatly concluded.

It is not that one needs a poll to tell us what we think or persuade us how to react. We shouldn't presume the guilt of someone who has been charged in a lawsuit. And we shouldn't prejudge the character and veracity of accuser or accused based on their lifestyles.

While we wait, we can make several requests of the bishops.

Keep lifting the veil of secrecy that has protected abusive priests. Investigate them openly. Report the findings, good or bad.

Quantify the problem. Provide data to support your claim that abuse of minors is no more prevalent among priests than in other segments of society. From its dioceses, which already report other statistics into a centralized system, the church can tell how many abuse cases it has.

Keep seeking to find and help those whom Cardinal Bernardin called "true victims." While his supporters have vented their anger, the accused in this case has set the example of outreach.

And that has not been lost on abuse survivors. "He has set a perfect example of how to respond to allegations," said SNAP leader Barbara Blaine of Chicago. "He has aggressively defended himself without attacking victims."

 by CNB