A Story of Falling and Rising

(submitted to The Nationalist, 04 April 2006)


The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago was one of the most respected bishops in the USA. In 1993, he was visiting Cardinal O’Connor of New York when O’Connor told him there was a rumour that an American cardinal would be accused of a criminal act against a minor. It seemed ridiculous to them both, but anyone can say anything in a free country. Within a few days, Bernardin was shocked to hear that he would be accused by a Steven Cook, who had been a seminarian in Cincinnati when Bernardin was archbishop there.

Cook was in his thirties, and dying of AIDS. He had previously filed a suit against another priest, but it had been thrown out as spurious. The media, especially CNN, seized on the story. CNN was due to feature a programme on the sins of priests, and reported the accusation four times an hour for three days, all tied to the upcoming programme. It claimed to have evidence, a picture of Bernardin and Cook together.

For a hundred days, Bernardin was treated as obviously guilty, though he couldn’t remember ever having met Cook. The case began to unravel when the photo turned out to be a group picture of all the seminarians. It emerged that Cook’s accusation followed a session of hypnotism given by a therapist with only a few hours of training. To his credit, Cook realized he had never met the cardinal and had been set up. He asked that the charges be dropped.

Bernardin could have condemned Cook for attacking him unjustly, or spoken about his promiscuous life. Instead, he wanted to meet Cook and say he had forgiven him. This was communicated to Cook through his mother. A year later, Bernardin met Cook and told him he harboured no ill feelings towards him. He only wanted to pray with him for his health and peace of mind. He asked Cook if he would like him to say Mass for him. Cook replied that he had been estranged from God for many years, and that perhaps a simple prayer would do. Then Bernardin opened his briefcase and took out two gifts. One was a Bible he had inscribed for Cook. ‘I understand if you won’t accept it’, he said to him, but Cook took it. The other was a hundred-year-old chalice an unknown person had sent him, asking him to use it for Mass with his accuser.

When Cook saw the chalice, he broke down and asked, ‘Would you say Mass for me now?’ They went to a chapel. During Mass, Cook received the sacraments. Before leaving, he said to Bernardin, ‘A big burden has been lifted from me today. I feel healed and at peace’.

After that, they kept in touch. When Bernardin was diagnosed with cancer, Cook was among the first to write to him. Cook himself died the following September. Receiving the sacraments for the last time, he told his mother that his return to Christ was a gift to her. A year later Bernardin also died.