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The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago laid groundwork for addressing clergy sexual abuse, Cardinal Cupich says

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Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago speaks during a luncheon at St. Genevieve School in Chicago Jan. 30, 2020. He delivered an address April 9, 2021, to an international symposium on clergy sex abuse. (CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Chicago Catholic)

WASHINGTON — When Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin of Chicago developed a comprehensive plan over a two-year period, in 1991 and 1992, to address clerical sexual abuse issues in the Illinois archdiocese, he provided a copy of those procedures to all his fellow U.S. bishops at their annual meeting.

“Their response was decidedly mixed,” Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, Chicago’s current cardinal-archbishop, said in recounting these efforts by the late prelate.

“Imagine if all the bishops had taken those documents home and fully implemented them in their dioceses, how much further ahead we would be … how many children might have been spared,” he said.

Cardinal Cupich made his remarks as part of a quartet of clergy who delivered separate prerecorded messages during an April 9 session, “The Role of Faith and Faith Leaders in Preventing and Healing Child Sexual Abuse.”

It was part of an international symposium, “Faith and Flourishing: Strategies for Preventing and Healing Child Sexual Abuse,” presented April 8-10 by the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science.

The event also was sponsored by numerous organizations, including the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America.

The late Chicago Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin is seen in this 1995 photo. Over a two-year period, in 1991 and 1992, the cardinal developed a comprehensive plan to address clergy sexual abuse and shared the plan with his fellow bishops, Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, Chicago’s current cardinal-archbishop, said in an April 9, 2021, address for an international symposium on clergy sex abuse. (CNS files)

Cardinal Bernardin “submitted himself to the archdiocesan review process” when he was falsely accused of abuse, Cardinal Cupich said. “Cardinal Bernardin reached out to his accuser when he recanted, he prayed with the young man as he was dying, and offered him pastoral care and reconciliation. His example speaks powerfully to me today.”

The framework of the Chicago Archdiocese’s plan nearly 30 years ago “committed resources to put the child in the center of the room, figuratively,” Cardinal Cupich said.

This framework included an Office of Victims Assistance — “we believe it is the first of its kind in the United States,” Cardinal Cupich said — an independent Office of Child Abuse Investigations and Review, and a Safe Environment Office overseeing prevention efforts and training for adults and children.

“Archdiocesan policies have evolved over the past three decades … but they are not a substitute for pastoral care. Faith, justice, compassion, recognition of the dignity of each person, recognition that we are all equal siblings children of God,” Cardinal Cupich said.

The cardinal told the story of a successful businessman who came to him in his first episcopal assignment. Starting at age 9, he had been abused by the parish priest — who, after the abuse, often “walked with the boy, hand in hand,” to his house to have dinner with the family.

According to Cardinal Cupich, when the boy asked his mother if he had to do something the priest wanted him to do, even if he didn’t want to do it, the mother replied — not knowing the nature of the priest’s requests — “Whatever Father asks you to do, you have to do it.” “And so the child did, for four agonizing years,” he said. “Then the child told the father, and the abuse ended.”

When the businessman came forward, he asked then-Bishop Cupich permission to “confront the priest” about the abuse, and “the priest did not deny it,” the cardinal said.

The prelate offered to go to the parish where the abuse had taken place, informed police and the Vatican, and notified other parishes where the priest had been assigned, asking other victims to come forward.

The episode “forced me to be an adult in a way I had never experienced,” Cardinal Cupich said, and it gave him a fresh insight into “leaders who abuse power and expect privilege and protection because of their status in the church.”

Rabbi Diana Gerson, associate executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, recalled that, as a newly ordained rabbi, she counseled a woman even though she did not belong to Rabbi Gerson’s synagogue. “As a rabbi, I had a sacred obligation to help,” but “I had never heard about these issues in the classroom.”

“I realized my voice could make a big difference” from this experience and so in 2002 for Yom Kippur — the Day of Atonement Rabbi Gerson called “The Jewish Super Bowl” — she gave a sermon on family violence before 6,000.

“People were shocked. How could I talk about this? How could I talk about this on this most sacred day?” she said.

“For me it was about the forgiveness of self — finding a pathway toward healing,” Rabbi Gerson added. “I decided religion was never going to be a roadblock for those who needed our help.”

Following that sermon, “my congregation was shifted. My calendar was full,” Rabbi Gerson said.

Three years ago, she received an email from a man who had heard that 2002 sermon. “It was this sermon that changed his life. He finally had come to terms with the clergy sexual abuse he had endured in his youth. He sought out the help that he needed. He connected to other resources and survivors,” Rabbi Gerson said.

“He shared his story, he sent me photos of his life: ‘I would not be here today, I would not have this full and rich life if you had not had the courage to go on the pulpit and give this sermon that was so controversial.'”