Below is a reprint of an open letter from Fr. Mark White, dated April 20, 2021. It is addressed to Cdl. Blase Cupich of Chicago.
Many of us watched the speech you delivered via video at the "Religion, Faith and Flourishing" symposium about the sexual abuse of children. We recognize that you represented our Church at this important event, as the highest-ranking prelate to address the conference.
In your speech, you claimed that "the voice of the sex abuse survivor must be our Church's true north." You extolled your own virtues as a bishop and the excellence of the administrative apparatus of your archdiocesan corporation. And you singled out one of your predecessors, Joseph Bernardin, as a hero.
You went on to say, "Imagine if all the bishops had followed Bernardin, how much further ahead we would be in preventing abuse and punishing offenders, how many children might have been spared."
In 1993, Mr. Steven Cook accused Bernardin, as well as another priest, then-father Ellis Harsham, of sexual abuse. In your speech for the symposium, you solely recounted Bernardin's version of the events surrounding that accusation, and you neglected to mention important statements by others.
The fact is that, by 12 years later, no one disputed that Cook rightly identified Harsham as an abuser. Cook ultimately stated that he could not trust his memory regarding Harsham's associate Bernardin — at least he could not trust it enough to move forward with a lawsuit. Bernardin then immediately rushed to the microphones to announce to the world that Cook had "recanted" and "the justice system has publicly affirmed my innocence."
Bernardin went on to claim that a Chicago priest had urged Cook to make the accusation. The priest has insisted that is untrue. Bernardin told the public that he had always been "chaste and celibate." The late Dr. A.W. Richard Sipe declared that he knew that was untrue. Bernardin claimed that he and Cook "reconciled" shortly before Cook's untimely death. We only have Bernardin's word on that.
In other words, Your Eminence, you extolled in your speech the heroism of the self-proclaimed hero, using only his version of events as your source of information.
But the late cardinal is an eminently questionable source for the truth of the matter. (Pun intended.) Another reasonable interpretation of the Cook-Bernardin Affair is: Cook took a secret cash settlement in exchange for withdrawing his public accusation against Bernardin. We know from the Vatican's McCarrick report that such a practice was used to silence the sex abuse victims of high-ranking prelates at that time.
In the summer of 2019, James Grein publicly accused Bernardin of having abused him. A year earlier, Mr. Grein's public testimony had led to the Vatican "trial" of Theodore McCarrick, the procedure that resulted in McCarrick's involuntary removal from the clerical state.
Was Grein's testimony about McCarrick true, but his accusation against Bernardin false? Is that what you have concluded? If so, on what grounds have you reached that conclusion?
A friend of mine has spoken with another sex abuse victim of Bernardin's. That survivor is still trying to recover, quietly, a half a century later.
Haven't you insulted the intelligence of your audience by presenting only Bernardin's version of the events of the Cook-Bernardin affair? Doesn't your audience deserve to know that the question of Bernardin's guilt is, in fact, not really settled at all?
You referred repeatedly in your symposium remarks to the year 2002. That year, then-cardinal Theodore McCarrick made many public speeches about how the Church had solved the sex abuse problem. We believed him; we trusted in our prelates. Turns out that McCarrick belonged in jail at the time.
Is there any question that McCarrick and Bernardin were friends? Is it not the case that Grein's assertion about Bernardin could very well be true? Aren't we supposed to believe survivors?
All that said, let's concede for a moment — for the sake of argument — that your predecessor Joseph Bernardin did not, in fact, abuse Steven Cook. Do you not recognize nonetheless what the Cook-Bernardin affair of '93–'94 did to sex abuse survivors across the country? How it cost them advocates in the media? How it led many to question their own memories? How it hurt their self-confidence and left them in the shadows? How can you talk in one breath about seeing Jesus in the sex abuse survivor and then in the next breath celebrate the Cook-Bernardin affair as if it were some kind of golden moment?
There is also substantial evidence that Bernardin regularly covered up for sex-abusing priests in Cincinnati and Chicago. Also, his roommate and "buddy" in his home diocese of Charleston, South Carolina was ultimately convicted for sex abuse of minors.
There is more. Your address at the symposium relied on the idea that the U.S. bishops' Dallas Charter made national policy that solved the sex abuse problem in the Catholic Church. That is, the secrecy and cover-up that has made many reasonable people all over the world think that our Church is corruptly governed.
In December of 2018, however, your attorney general in Illinois offered her advice about fundamental flaws in the Dallas Charter. She pointed out how imprecise the terms are, the terms that you bishops use in dealing with sex abuse cases. She showed in her report how the process you extolled in your symposium speech is actually full of dangerous gaps that have left many survivors out in the cold.
It has been over two years since Attorney General [Lisa] Madigan offered her advice. You met privately with her successor in office the following year. Have the U.S. bishops taken any steps to address Madigan's helpful points? If so, why don't we rank-and-file Catholics know anything about those steps?
Your Eminence, many of us Catholics are struggling to hold onto our loyalty to our beloved Church. It would help us if you would reply with clear answers to the questions I have asked you. After all, as you yourself put it in your speech, "full accountability is a universal non-negotiable."
Yours in the Lord,