“When Cardinal Bernardin was accused of sexual misconduct, his first move was to go to the seminary and be with his flock,” said the Reverend Andrew Santos, now a priest, then a student at Mundelein Seminary outside Chicago. “He knew that something like this could demoralize seminarians who aspired to priesthood and ordination by, and work with, a man of integrity and holiness. His first thought was that the seminarians would lose hope, so he put his personal needs aside and met with us in all candor and honesty to assure us of his innocence, answer questions, and pray with and for us. It was amazing.”
Just days earlier, on November 10, 1993, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin had been in New York to give the annual Thomas Merton Lecture at Columbia University. During his visit, his friend John Cardinal O’Connor told him of a disturbing rumor: a U.S. cardinal was about to be accused of sexual misconduct. By the next day, as Bernardin returned home and resumed his work as archbishop of Chicago, the rumors grew more specific—it was Bernardin who was to be named, in a lawsuit charging that while he was archbishop of Cincinnati he had sexually abused a seminarian named Steven Cook. As he explained in his personal reflections, The Gift of Peace, he paused in prayer amidst the mounting storm and wondered, “Was this what the Lord had been preparing me for, to face false accusations about something that I knew never took place?”
The day before the charges were made formal, Bernardin issued a simple statement declaring his innocence. That night, in the face of countless phone calls and news reports of the accusation, he prayed for his accuser. Suspecting that Cook was caught up in a conspiracy that had spiraled beyond his control, Bernardin felt an impulse to pray with him in person. Indeed, a few days after the case was filed, the cardinal wrote Cook a private letter (which Cook’s lawyer never gave his client) offering to meet and pray with him. A passionate teacher, Bernardin deeply valued the relationship between teachers and students.
“I was at a luncheon when I saw on television that the charges against the cardinal were going to be made. I left the luncheon early and called friends to see if the story was real. At the time, I was testifying as a character witness for a priest who had been falsely accused of sexual misconduct, so my heart felt bad for the cardinal,” said the Reverend Kevin Birmingham, a classmate of Santos.
Santos also recalls hearing the news, “That day one of our professors, Father Larry Hennessy, began class by praying for the archdiocese. He was clearly moved, and seemed to be holding back tears. We all wondered what was going on. Later we heard of the charges.”
The next morning, as Bernardin prepared for a 1 p.m. news conference, the allegations were the lead story in cities across the globe. To make matters worse, throughout the day CNN aired hourly spots promoting a Sunday night special entitled “Fall from Grace” concerning priests found guilty of sex crimes. The teaser promised not only an interview with Steven Cook but evidence against the cardinal as well. Having listened to the advice of friends, family, and lawyers, Bernardin stood before a packed press room and, in the words of one reporter, “denied us a good story but showed us a good man.”
Over the next weeks he held fourteen press conferences, working to slowly regain the trust and confidence he had spent a lifetime building.
For Santos, the cardinal’s witness was profoundly inspiring. “During the time of his accusation instead of saying ‘no comment’ or isolating himself, Bernardin would pull up to his house and talk with reporters waiting in the driveway. He rooted himself in prayer and put himself forward, which is different from what others would do in the same situation.”
Bernardin often said that the best sermon he could ever give would be the way he handled himself in the face of adversity. His strong example and faith-filled actions throughout the false accusation and later in his battle with cancer turned tragedy into teachable moments. Not many in his position would have taken time away from their advisors and from the media to talk with seminarians. Bernardin visited Mundelein in the midst of his personal chaos in order to reassure his archdiocese’s priests in training. The students understood the gift.
“When he came to visit with us right after the accusation was made, his integrity, openness, and honesty immediately told us that the charges were false,” Santos said. “He undoubtedly had wondered, ‘Will these students lose hope in me, in the priesthood they are preparing for?’ We gave him a standing ovation to let him know that we were supporting and praying for him in return.”
The same honesty and openness prompted the cardinal to personally submit the case against him to an archdiocesan review board. He had helped create the board as part of a process for handling sexual abuse charges against priests of the archdiocese. His honesty and openness also moved him to reach out to all believers and assure them of God’s love and fidelity and to pray that someday he and his accuser would reconcile, bringing a terrible ordeal to closure.
One hundred days passed before Cook confessed that his charges were false and recanted. Rather than a fall from grace, the accusations provided an entrance into grace. On December 30, 1994, Cardinal Bernardin and Steven Cook met face to face. The cardinal initiated the meeting to forgive and heal his accuser. Cook, by then dying of AIDS, responded by stating that a burden had been lifted from his shoulders and by reclaiming the faith he had lost. Six months later, when Bernardin was diagnosed with cancer, one of the first letters he received was from Cook.
“When Cardinal Bernadin met with the seminarians during the false accusation, I was discerning my vocation. I was wondering if I wanted a life of public ministry, of subjecting myself to such things,” said Birmingham. “But it was the cardinal’s courage that gave me the strength to complete my studies and move on. What struck me most were his commitment to prayer and his desire to reconcile with his accuser. He told us that his prayer had changed—he still prayed for an hour each morning, but now he would prostrate himself in complete submission to our Lord and pray for his accuser.”
For both Santos and Birmingham, it is Bernardin’s passion for teaching and spirit of reconciliation that continue to enrich their lives as young priests and teachers. “A priest is called to be a healer and reconciler who brings people to Christ. That is what Cardinal Bernardin did and what we are all supposed to do,” said Santos.
Though Bernardin died before he could ordain Andrew Santos, Kevin Birmingham, and the five other seminarians from his archdiocese who graduated in the class of 1997 from the University of St. Mary of the Lake Mundelein Seminary, he did share a profound moment with each of them at the end of his life. The Reverend John Canary, who became rector of the school in the middle of that class’s tenure when the previous rector, the Reverend Gerald Kicanas, was ordained an auxiliary bishop of Chicago, explained, “When it was apparent that they would not be ordained by the cardinal, the seminarians met with me to share their disappointment. I decided to call the cardinal so that he could speak with each of them.
“Each of us got a chance to share with him personally how much he meant to us and how much of him will live in us,” said Birmingham. “It was the most extraordinarily moving experience of my four years at Mundelein,” said Santos. “Even a phone call toward the end of his life was painful, but he was on the phone with each of us to offer his hope and encouragement.”
After they all hung up, Canary let them know how much the phone call meant to the cardinal. Bernardin, he said, had added, “The archdiocese is in good hands.”
Joseph Bernardin died November 14, 1996. “People’s lives were somehow touched and blessed from the simplest encounter with Cardinal Bernardin,” said Santos. “That is why his funeral was the way it was. My classmates and I attended the funeral and were in the long procession from Holy Name Cathedral to Mount Carmel Cemetery. On every block, people of all backgrounds paid their respects with signs and clapping.”