Magazine article The Christian Century

There Ought to Be a Law; Lessons from the Bernardin Case

Magazine article The Christian Century

There Ought to Be a Law; Lessons from the Bernardin Case

Article excerpt

IT IS CLEAR in the wake of many allegations charging clergy with sexual abuse of children or teenagers that, in addition to protecting children and disciplining clergy, we need some way of protecting clergy and others from frivolous charges. In one highly publicized case, Stephen Cook brought a suit against Chicago's Cardinal Joseph Bernardin claiming that he had been molested by Bernardin and another priest while he was studying at St. Gregory Seminary in Cincinnati in 1976. Cook declared in late November that under hypnosis he had recalled a repressed memory of this abuse.

At the time the charge was made I wrote that this case was "one of those significant paradigmatic moments that could reshape public attitudes" about sexual-abuse charges. It appeared then that Bernardin faced years of litigation to clear his name. But a few weeks ago Cook, who is dying of AIDS, dropped his suit against the cardinal, saying that his repressed memory may have been incorrect. He has also settled a $10 million suit against the Rev. Ellis Harsham for an undisclosed amount, a settlement in which there is no "admission of guilt" by Harsham.

Bernadin's ordeal was relatively short-lived. But he still had to endure an intense period when media coverage linked his name with sexual abuse. In the current media climate of sensationalism, innocent persons may be easily, permanently and unfairly linked to unsavory behavior. Initial media coverage of the Bernardin story was typical of the feeding frenzy that increasingly seems to be the standard for stories involving the sexual activity of prominent figures. After Cook dropped his charges, Bernardin expressed concern about "the almost instantaneous judgment made by some that I had fallen from grace or had been permanently damaged, even before I had a chance to respond or the legal system had deliberated."

He did not mention any media outlet by name; but as the National Catholic Reporter noted, the cardinal apparently was particularly concerned about the coverage by CNN, whose Headline News broke the story on a Thursday and repeated Cook's charges "virtually every half hour throughout the weekend," leading up to a special broadcast Sunday evening about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. That sequence left a clear impression of guilt--an impression which, as is now evident, was completely unwarranted. CNN offers a valuable service with its 24-hour-a-day news programming, but the drive to fill all those hours with compelling topics leads it toward "infotainment"--an approach other media pick up on.

In its coverage of the Bernardin story, CNN failed to note that Cook "recovered" his repressed memory of abuse with the assistance of Michelle Moul, an unlicensed hypnotist who runs a graphic-arts business. Cook had gone to Moul for help in dealing with physical symptoms, reported NCR, and. under hypnosis had recalled "some physical contact" with Bernardin. Later, not under hypnosis, he said he had a memory of contact of "a sexual nature." On the basis of these reports, Cook's attorneys added Bernardin to the case they were preparing against Harsham. They dropped the charge against Bernardin when, according to NCR, depositions revealed that the hypnotist had not followed guidelines required by courts to admit evidence obtained during hypnosis.

Medical professionals have successfully lobbied for legislation that offers protection from frivolous malpractice charges. …

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