By: Kevin Considine

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Friday, June 1, 2007 at 1:01am

From humiliation to reconciliation

Column: God Said What?
Forgiveness, healing, reconciliation.

These words are often spoken but rarely practiced. For they require much time, much energy and they offer no certainty of success. Also, they poke and prod at painful experiences that at best are messy and at worst take life away.

The process of forgiveness, healing and reconciliation is difficult because "victims" and "perpetrators" must be brought back together. These terms are strong, but they can refer to anything from violence, torture and abuse to a family feud to a betrayal of trust. They apply in different degrees to any situation where one human being injures another.

And Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, the archbishop of Chicago from 1982 until 1996, was no stranger to this process of reconciliation. In November 1993 the nation was shocked when Cardinal Bernardin was charged with sexual misconduct. The charge was levied by Steven Cook, a former seminarian, who had accused the cardinal and another priest of sexually abusing him in Cincinnati more than a decade earlier.

Cook alleged that this event of abuse had occurred in the mid- to late 1970s while he was a teenager. At the time of the accusations he had been in counseling, and under hypnosis he claimed to have recovered this memory. So it was that Cook filed a lawsuit against Bernardin and asked for $10 million in damages.

Immediately, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin strongly denied Cook's allegations. He talked about how he had always lived true to his vow of celibacy and had no recollection of ever meeting Steven Cook. Bernardin was publicly humiliated and deeply wounded by Cook's allegations. The allegations made national headlines and continually circulated on cable news. In short, Bernardin's reputation was called into question and he was living a nightmare.

Bernardin's nightmare lasted until the spring of 1994. This was when Steven Cook withdrew his allegations and a federal judge in Cincinnati dismissed the charges. At a news conference Cook announced that, "I now realize that the memories which arose during and after hypnosis are unreliable" and that "I can no longer proceed in good conscience."

Just like that, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin was vindicated. His good name had been restored and his time of trial was over. Cook, a troubled young man, seemed to realize that he had made a horrible mistake. The sexual abuse headlines eventually disappeared, and life seemed like it would move on.

But Bernardin realized that this wasn't over yet. He had been injured by Cook's false allegations and assumed that Cook also had been wounded by the ordeal. To the dismay of his advisors, friends and colleagues, Bernardin sought to meet Cook face to face. He sought to forgive, to heal and to reconcile.

The cardinal then initiated contact with Steven in order to set up a meeting. Bernardin remarked that "I began by telling Steven that the only reason for requesting the meeting was to bring closure to the traumatic events of the last winter by personally letting him know that I harbored no ill feelings toward him and to pray with him for his physical and spiritual well-being."

The meeting took place on Dec. 30, 1994, in Philadelphia, where Steven resided. On that date the two men met semi-privately; the only other persons allowed in the room were one friend at each man's side. They spoke face to face, forgiveness was offered and at the end they celebrated the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist.

Afterward, Bernardin informed others that "Before Steven left, he told me that a big burden had been lifted from him. He felt healed and at peace. He also asked me to tell the story of his reconciliation. ... I promised him I would and that I would walk with him in the weeks and months ahead."

And that he did. At the time of the meeting Steven Cook was dying of AIDS. Five months after the meeting Bernardin was diagnosed with the cancer that would eventually take his life. After their meeting, the two stayed in touch regularly by phone and checked up on each other's health from a distance. Steven Cook eventually died of complications with AIDS later in 1995. And Cardinal Bernardin succumbed to cancer in November of 1996.

Before passing away, each man had experienced reconciliation. Although they didn't forget what had transpired, they were able to live the remainder of their lives in what Dr. Avis Clendenen calls "new time" as healed human beings. In her book "Forgiveness: Finding Freedom Through Reconciliation," Clendenen observes that "The Cardinal and Steven gave witness to the reality that human beings do not heal by forgetting. Time alone does not heal; time only provides the context in which to do the healing."

Joseph Cardinal Bernardin understood this. And he took it upon himself to initiate a process of reconciliation with Steven Cook. It wasn't easy, and it was against the wishes of all his closest friends, but it was necessary. As Bernardin later described the encounter, "The words I am using to tell you this story cannot begin to describe the power of God's grace that was at work that afternoon. It was a manifestation of God's love, forgiveness and healing that I will never forget."

There is much we can learn from the example of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin. He was falsely accused, stood his ground in the face of the accusations and then eventually initiated a process of healing and reconciliation that both he and his accuser needed. And who knows, perhaps his example can offer hope to the rest of us that forgiveness, healing and reconciliation are possible in our own lives.

Joseph Cardinal Bernardin was willing to put his neck on the line so that he and his accuser could be healed. He didn't have to do it, but he chose to do it. And in retrospect it was the only decision that could possibly have shown God's heart for us.

For Cardinal Bernardin knew the God of Jesus Christ. And he helped to show us that God's heart burns with a healing fire of love.

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Kevin Considine is a graduate student at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. Recently he was married to a most wonderful woman who keeps him in line and reads his columns to see if they make sense. He and his wife live on the South Side of Chicago. He welcomes comments, feedback or fits of anger and can be reached at {email}{/email}. © copyright 2007 by Kevin Considine.