CHICAGO, FEB. 28 -- The man who accused Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago of sexually abusing him during the 1970s withdrew those charges today after concluding that his memories of the alleged incident, which were evoked during hypnosis, are "unreliable."
In a motion approved by U.S. District Judge S. Arthur Spiegel of Cincinnati, where the civil lawsuit against Bernardin was filed in November, Steven J. Cook asked that the charges be dismissed because he "can no longer be sure that his memories of abuse by the cardinal are true or accurate."
Cook, 34, continued to press his sex abuse lawsuit against the Rev. Ellis N. Harsham, a priest in Cincinnati when Bernardin was the archbishop there. But his withdrawal of the charges against Bernardin ended a public ordeal for one of the nation's most respected Roman Catholic clergymen, who has been a leader in confronting the burgeoning scandal of sex abuse by priests.
At a news conference here this afternoon, Bernardin said he felt "totally vindicated" and harbored no ill feelings toward Cook. "I have great compassion for him," he said. "I have prayed for him every day, and I will continue to do so."
But Bernardin added that he had been "totally humiliated by the public attack on my character."
"The travesty was that I, a man of 65 years, who has been a priest for 42 years and a bishop for 28 years, was publicly humiliated before the world," he said. "An innocent man. That's a travesty."
Cook, a Philadelphia man who is dying of AIDS, alleged that as a 17-year-old participant in a special program for young men interested in the priesthood at St. Gregory Seminary in Cincinnati, he was "repeatedly and continually" sexually abused by Harsham. On at least one occasion, the $10 million suit alleged, Harsham "delivered" Cook to the private quarters of Bernardin, who also abused him.
In a television interview when the suit was filed, Cook said of Bernardin, "I want to see the church rid itself of this kind of vermin, this kind of evil."
But today in Cincinnati, Cook said he never should have brought the suit against Bernardin and could no longer proceed with it "in good conscience." He said he had not been pressured or promised anything and was dropping the charges "because it is the right thing to do."
The charges against such a high-ranking and respected prelate renewed attention to the flood of sex abuse charges against priests, a growing and costly scandal for the church. But from the beginning, it raised questions about the techniques used in so-called repressed-memory cases.
The practice of retrieving "repressed memories" through hypnosis and other means has become the subject of furious debate among psychologists and psychiatrists. Proponents argue that the techniques can help adults recall forgotten traumatic events, such as episodes of childhood sexual abuse. Numerous lawsuits have resulted, some involving subjects who sue their parents, teachers or clergymen after years of warm relations.
Critics counter that there is little evidence to support the sudden perfect recollection of long-repressed events. They also warn that the recall techniques -- including hypnosis, "age regression" and "guided visualization" -- can implant ideas that result in "false memories" compounded of imagination and suggestions from therapists or others.
According to news reports here, Cook recalled the alleged abuse by Bernardin while under hypnosis by Michele Moul, who was described as the holder of a master's degree in applied psychology from an unaccredited institution in California and who more recently has operated a graphic arts studio.
In a recent interview before Cook withdrew his charges, Patrick J. Schiltz, a Minnesota lawyer who specializes in defending clergymen in sex abuse cases, said that while "the vast majority of those accused of this stuff are guilty," there has been a recent upsurge in false claims because "there's a lot of money involved, there's all those victims' advocates."
At his news conference, Bernardin said Cook claimed to have three items that linked him to Bernardin -- a book, which Bernardin said was not inscribed; a painting, which he said did not exist; and a photograph of both men, which he said was taken at a graduation ceremony at the seminary.
Bernardin said he had no plans to counter-sue Cook and considered that "this particular chapter is ended," but that he remained troubled 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."
"I have a tremendous sympathy for anyone who has been falsely accused," he said, and added "that this experience has also strengthened my resolve to reach out to victims of sexual abuse and to do all in my power to eradicate the causes of abuse wherever it occurs."
Special correspondent Megan Garvey contributed to this report.