The Common Good
May 1994

Grace under Pressure

by Jim Wallis | May 1994

The glare of the camera lights showed the anguish on Joseph
Bernardin’s face as he arrived at the annual meeting of U.S.
Catholic bishops last November in Washington, D.C.

The glare of the camera lights showed the anguish on Joseph Bernardin’s face as he arrived at the annual meeting of U.S. Catholic bishops last November in Washington, D.C. The highly respected 65-year-old cardinal of Chicago, the largest archdiocese in America, had just been

accused of sexual abuse by a former seminarian. After 43 years as an ordained priest, Cardinal Bernardin would later describe the months that followed as "the worst experience of my life."

Under treatment with an unregistered Philadelphia hypnotist, Steven Cook thought he remembered Bernardin molesting him when he was in seminary in Cincinnati, where the prelate had been the archbishop. There was no other evidence.

Cardinal Bernardin has earned a reputation as a man above reproach. Known as good, decent, honest, and humble, Bernardin rose through the ranks of the Catholic Church. In every position he has held, as priest, bishop, archbishop, cardinal, and then general secretary and eventually president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, he has performed well with no hint of scandal around him.

Bernardin probably became best known for pioneering the vision of "the seamless garment," a consistent ethic of life that applies to every social issue, including nuclear weapons, abortion, poverty, euthanasia, and capital punishment. In doing so, Bernardin helped many Catholics and other Christians transcend the predictable political categories of left and right on a variety of controversial questions. Bernardin also chaired the crucial committee that developed the ground-breaking pastoral letter on nuclear weapons issued by the U.S. Catholic bishops in 1983.

On the matter of sexual abuse by clergy, Bernardin has taken a strong stand and helped lead the way on the issue in the Catholic Church by forcefully dealing with offending priests and advocating for their victims. The Chicago archdiocese has set up clear and tough procedures for dealing with this very real problem in the church’s life and has taken action in many cases.

IN FEBRUARY, the young man who made the damaging charges voluntarily admitted that his memory had been "unreliable" and apologized for the accusations. Cook dropped the charges with no pressure, no deal, and no settlement involved. Cook’s charges against another priest in Cincinnati still stand and a court procedure is pending.

The way Bernardin handled the painful situation demonstrates his character. When accused of sexual misconduct, he denied the allegations emphatically, but then turned the matter over to the established processes the diocese had set up for handling such charges. Most important, Bernardin instructed his lawyers not to pressure, harass, or try to discredit Cook in any way. Bernardin was concerned that he not do anything that might deter other victims of sexual abuse from coming forward.

In such a situation, how many church leaders or other accused people would have had that as a primary concern? Barbara Blaine, a survivor of sexual abuse, a lawyer, and the head of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, told the Chicago Sun-Times, "Our hearts go out to Cardinal Bernardin. Steven Cook did the right thing by withdrawing the suit, and we hope that other accused church leaders follow the cardinal’s example of defending himself without attacking his accusers."

Bernardin did not want to condemn Cook, who is dying with AIDS and resurrecting painful memories. The powerful Bernardin did not let this confrontation become a personal matter.

We have seen too many cases where leaders of Christian organizations act swiftly and brutally in attempting to dismiss, discredit, buy off, or even crush those who dare accuse them of sexual misconduct. Unfortunately, church leaders known for their prudence, probity, compassion, and integrity are rare these days. But Bernardin is such a spiritual leader. He acted differently and the church is better for it.

Despite his own difficult experience, Cardinal Bernardin told a recent Chicago news conference that his commitment to eradicate sexual abuse in the churches has only deepened.

"The ordeal of the past several months has been painful, very painful. I was totally humiliated by the public attack on my character. I have tremendous sympathy for anyone who has been falsely accused. I hasten to add that this experience has also strengthened my resolve to reach out to victims of sexual abuse and to do all in my power to eradicate the causes of abuse wherever it exists."

While Bernardin says he harbors "no ill feelings" toward Cook, the cardinal does seem still troubled and even angry at "the instantaneous judgment" made by some of the media before he had a chance to respond or the legal system had deliberated. While the cardinal didn’t single anyone out, CNN was one of the biggest offenders.

The case raises many questions for the future. The continuing legacy of church sexual abuse, the victims’ agony, the need for clear, courageous church policy and procedures, the vulnerability of all church leaders to such charges, and the media frenzy such cases invariably create—we are a long way from adequately dealing with these issues. But Cardinal Bernardin has offered us great help and exemplary leadership—once again.

Speaking of Leadership

For the most part, America doesn’t celebrate leaders anymore, only celebrities. What is a celebrity? Here’s a pretty accurate definition: A celebrity is somebody who wants to sell you something and get famous and rich themselves by doing so.

In a rare moment of candor, a spokesperson for ProServe (an agency that sells athletes and other celebrities for corporate advertising) recently admitted on a Washington, D.C. radio talk show that the financially motivated attack on Nancy Kerrigan by Tonya Harding’s husband, bodyguard, and friends was the best thing that ever happened to both skaters.

Their commercial value has now skyrocketed, he said, and both stand to benefit big time. Tonya has never tried to hide her commercial motivations for twirling around the ice and has already cashed in on tabloid interviews. Nancy was into a pair of Reeboks and off to Disney World before the Olympics were even over. What did Kerrigan do to become an American hero?

Remember the stiff celebrity competition in the Super Bowl ads? There was Shaquille O’Neal rapping and slam-dunking for Reebok, Chevy Chase getting canceled again in a Doritos ad, Mike Ditka coaching the tired old football game between Bud and Bud Lite beer bottles, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird shooting baskets from outer space to sell Big Macs, Michael Jordan and Steve Martin selling Nikes (Michael has become our most promiscuous huckster), and, of course, Dan Quayle selling Wavy Lays Potato Chips (he finally seemed well-cast for a job and fortunately didn’t have to spell "potato").

Television ads bring more fame and money than what the celebrity was initially famous for. Advertising equals more recognition equals more money equals celebrity status and cultural influence. It’s a great system for developing cultural leaders. The list of those who have become advertising celebs now includes Ray Charles selling Diet Pepsi, Candice Bergen persuading us to switch to Sprint, James Earl Jones hawking phone books, and Bill Cosby feeding Jell-O to innocent children. Do they really need the money?

Our society has been cheapened by its celebrities. It’s time to find the real leaders.

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