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Meeting was grace-filled: 'we both sought reconciliation.' (Cardinal Joseph Bernardin meets with erstwhile sexual abuse accuser Steven Cook) (Cover Story)

Shortly after Steven Cook accused me of abusing him sexually, I wrote a personal letter requesting that we meet so I could pray with and for him. I now know that he never received it. Nonetheless, I am happy to report that on Dec. 30 I flew to Philadelphia and spent two hours with Steven. In accordance with Steven's wishes, I would like to tell you about this grace-filled meeting that brought closure and peace to both of us. May this story give to anyone who is hurt or alienated the inspiration and courage to be reconciled.

In mid-December I decided I wanted to meet with Steven before the year ended. Even though I had never heard from him, I sensed he also wanted to see me. Not knowing his address or phone number and not wanting to take him by surprise, I spoke with Fr. Philip Seher, a personal friend of mine and pastor of St. William Parish in Cincinnati where Steven's mother, Mary, lives. Fr. Seher contacted Mrs. Cook, who in turn spoke with Steven, who expressed not only a willingness but a real desire to meet with me. We met in Philadelphia where Steven lives.

through the courtesy of the rector, Msgr. James Malloy, we met at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. A priest friend from Chicago accompanied me, and a friend came with Steven.

I began by telling Steven that the only reason for requesting the meeting was to bring closure to the traumatic events of 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. He replied that he wanted to meet with me to apologize for the embarrassment and hurt he had caused. In other words, we both sought reconciliation.

Steven's apology was simple, direct, deeply moving. I accepted his apology. I told him that I had prayed for him every day and would continue to pray for his health and peace of mind. It was very evident that he was in precarious health. [Cook has AIDS.] I also told him that while I would not want to go through such a humiliating experience again, nonetheless it had contributed to my own spiritual growth and had made me more compassionate.

I then asked whether he wanted me to celebrate Mass for him. At first he hesitated, saying he felt very alienated from God and the church for several reasons that he shared with me. He said that on several occasions while in a motel he threw the Gideon Bible against the wall in anger and frustration. Perhaps, he said, just a simple prayer would be more appropriate.

I told him that I would not press the issue but did want to show him two items I had brought with me. I reached into my briefcase and brought out a Bible that I had purchased for him the day before. I told him I would not be offended if he did not accept it. With tears in his eyes, he reached for the Bible and held it tightly to his chest.

Then I took out of the briefcase a chalice that someone, whom I had never met, had sent with the request that I offer a Mass for Steven. I told Steven that even if I did not celebrate Mass on the occasion of our visit, I would do so later. Again with tears in his eyes, he said, "Please, let's celebrate Mass." Never in my 43 years as a priest have I witnessed a more profound reconciliation. 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.

We went to the chapel where I anointed him and celebrated Mass for the feast of the Holy Family. In my few remarks after the gospel, I told him that in every family there are times when there is hurt, anger, alienation. But we cannot run away from our family. We have only one family so we must make every effort to be reconciled. The church, I added, is our spiritual family. Once we become a member, we may be hurt or become alienated but it is still our family. Since there is no other, we must work at reconciliation -- something we were doing that very afternoon.

Before Steven left, he told me that a big burden had been lifted from him. He felt healed and was at peace. He also asked me to tell the story of his reconciliation with the church and with me. I promised him I would and that I would walk with him in the weeks and months ahead. Steven is very realistic about his future. Happily, our exchange and the celebration of the sacraments were the instruments God used to give him the peace and courage he needs in the time he has left.

May this story of our meeting be a source of joy and grace to all who read it. May God be praised!
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Author:Bernardin, Joseph, Cardinal
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jan 13, 1995
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