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Mahony, Bernardin Cases Have Parallels

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

April 07, 2002|LARRY STAMMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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' recollections.

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.

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