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Mahony, Bernardin Cases Have Parallels

Allegations: Cardinal defended Chicago prelate against claim retracted months later.

April 7 2002

When Cardinal Roger M. Mahony was privately informed last month that a woman had accused
him of sexual abuse, he found himself on familiar ground.
In 1993 Mahony had come to the defense of another leading American prelate similarly accused,
Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago.
"I know him too well," Mahony said at the time, "to believe that any of these outrageous
allegations could have any basis in fact. I fear that we are reaching a new level of contempt when
anyone can bring unfounded charges against church leaders of such integrity." The charges
against Bernardin were disavowed four months later by his accuser, a seminarian named Steven
Cook, who said he had had a faulty memory of an incident that occurred 20 years earlier, when he
was 17.
The episode had historical significance beyond what it did to the late Bernardin's reputation: It was
regarded as a setback for a movement by victims of priestly abuse, who had long struggled to
convince the public that the Roman Catholic Church was in denial.
Now a Fresno woman has come forward with an accusation that Mahony molested her on the
campus of a Catholic high school there when she was a teenager in 1970.
The new allegations against Mahony are still under investigation, but there are striking parallels
between how the two cardinals responded to the charges--and the reliability of their accusers'
The Fresno woman said the purported incident had "kept eating away at me" over the years. But
she told reporters there are lapses in her recollection. She said she found herself blacked out on
the grounds of San Joaquin Memorial Catholic High School and looked up and saw Mahony.
In the Bernardin case, Cook said his faulty recollections of being abused were based in large part
on the use of hypnosis to help recover repressed memories. He said that if he had known about
the limitations of recovered memory he would never have accused Bernardin, or sued him for $10
million. Cook later died of AIDS.
On Friday, Mahony, like Bernardin years before him, strongly denied the charges in virtually the
same language.
"I categorically [deny] ever having molested anyone either before or after my ordination as a priest
and as a bishop," Mahony said Friday.
Years earlier, Bernardin said, "The allegations are totally untrue. They're categorically false. I have
never abused anyone, at any time and at any place."
Mahony, like Bernardin, said he was praying for his accuser. Both asked for the prayers of others.
Bernardin held a Chicago news conference the day that Cook filed suit, and another several days
later in Washington during a meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Mahony, a media-savvy archbishop who advises Pope John Paul II on communications matters,
chose a different approach. He had dodged reporters all day Friday after dozens of private e-mails
from the Los Angeles archdiocese's office about the church's sexual-abuse scandal were leaked.
But later in the day, as the media focused on several e-mails mentioning the Fresno woman's
accusations, Mahony issued a written statement within an hour.
Mahony personally reported the allegation to police on March 22, the same day he was told about
it by Fresno Bishop John Steinbock.
Both cardinals showed no hesitancy to take on controversial issues.
Bernardin was a peacemaker who sought to reconcile competing ideologies that have long pulled
at the fabric of the American church. He started an organization called Common Ground, which
encouraged dialogue on controversial issues within the church such as ordaining women and
allowing priests to marry. This was at a time when the pope had disappointed liberal Catholics by
firmly saying the matters were closed.
When Bernardin was dying in 1996, it was Mahony who rushed to his bedside to offer comfort and
a private Mass. And it was Mahony to whom the mantle of leadership of Bernardin's Common
Ground was passed.
The organization eventually faded, but Mahony is widely viewed as one of the few cardinals who
seems willing to at least entertain dialogue between Catholicism's traditional and dissenting
factions. Two weeks ago in Long Beach, Mahony said he never believed that the church should
silence those who want to discuss a married priesthood.
Whatever the outcome of the Mahony investigation, it will probably have repercussions across the
American church. If Mahony is eventually cleared, the church would be able to claim some
vindication at a time when it faces what many believe is its greatest crisis in modern times.
Yet the past months' stunning revelations across the nation of priestly abuse, and the way many
archdioceses failed to remove errant priests, make abuse crusaders less worried about the long-
term effects of such an outcome.
Mahony's exoneration would not be nearly the setback it was in 1994 when Cook changed his
story about Bernardin, said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those
Abused by Priests.
Clohessy, who lives in St. Louis, said Saturday that the Bernardin case not only made journalists
and attorneys more skeptical of sexual abuse charges, but discouraged more victims from going
But that is unlikely to be the case today, he said. After so many years and so many proven
disclosures of clergy sexual abuse, Clohessy said, a "shaky" allegation, even against a prominent
churchman like Mahony, would not be as damaging.
A similar outcome today "will hurt us," he said, "but it will be less dangerous because of the
preponderance of evidence since the Bernardin situation."
Mahony may have one more thing in common with Bernardin if he is cleared like his friend was.
Upon Bernardin's death, he was remembered as one of the nation's leading cardinals, a reconciler,
a listener and a deeply spiritual man who, even as he was dying of cancer, ministered to other
cancer victims. Yet the obituaries all mentioned the dismissed allegation of sexual abuse.
"Even a false allegation is mentioned and included in the obit," said one of Mahony's confidants.
"It's as good as being branded."