|| Fiore denies urging Bernardin's
By TOM ROBERTS
A controversial Wisconsin priest has issued public denials recently of speculation that he had urged Steven Cook to accuse Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of sex abuse.
The denials by Fr. Charles Fiore were prompted by the publication of The Gift of Peace, Bernardin's posthumous memoir, published in January, in which the cardinal says he learned from Cook that a priest who was an adviser to Cook urged him to name the cardinal in a sexual molestation lawsuit.
The book did not name the priest. But Fiore, a longtime critic of the cardinal who was publicly linked with Cook at the time of the lawsuit, says he did not do what is claimed in the book.
"I categorically deny it. It is simply untrue," Fiore said in a telephone interview with Catholic News Service from his home in Lodi, Wis. Cook, who was suffering from AIDS, died in 1995. Bernardin died last November.
Another account of Bernardin's final years, a 15,000-word addition by Chicago author Eugene Kennedy to his biography of Bernardin, leaves no doubt that Fiore is the priest in question. Kennedy added the section to his 1990 biography, Bernardin: Life to the Full (Bonus Books, Chicago), following Bernardin's death.
In the new edition, Kennedy reconstructs an encounter that occurred between Bernardin and Cook at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Overbrook, Pa. The conversation, which took place Dec. 30, 1994, occurred in the context of a reconciliation meeting between the cardinal and his accuser. The account, said Kennedy in a phone interview, is based on interviews with Bernardin and other witnesses who were present at the meeting.
Cook "explained his coming in contact with lawyer Stephen Rubino [of Ventnor, N.J.] to file suit against the priest who had abused him in the seminary," Kennedy wrote. "He spoke of the intervention by phone of a Father Fiore who had urged him to remember if Bernardin had abused him and to include him in the suit, and of how he had tried by words and gifts to get Steven's mother to cooperate in the venture." Among those present during the exchanges were Fr. Scott Donahue, who accompanied Bernardin, and a man named Kevin, Cook's companion and caregiver.
Chicago archdiocesan spokesman Robert Quakenbush declined to say if Fiore was the priest in question. He said, "The cardinal chose not to name the priest in his book. The archdiocese intends to follow his example."
Bernardin's memoir of his last three years includes reflections on his struggles with cancer and on the dramatic claim of sexual abuse filed against him by Cook in November 1993.
Cook recanted all his allegations against the cardinal less than four months later, and he and the cardinal were reconciled in the December 1994 meeting at the seminary outside Philadelphia. The cardinal wrote that in their 1994 meeting, Cook said a priest had urged him to name the cardinal in his lawsuit.
"Although Steven was pursuing a case only against his seminary teacher," the cardinal wrote, "his priest adviser began mentioning me, Cardinal Bernardin, suggesting that, if I were included in the case, Steven would surely get back what he wanted from the church. This spiritual guide pushed my name, urging Steven to name me along with the other priest in the legal action."
Fiore, ousted from the Dominicans, sometimes writes for The Wanderer, a right-wing Catholic weekly, and regularly criticizes bishops he considers insufficiently orthodox or not vigorous enough in enforcing church teaching and practice.
He was particularly critical of Bernardin, whose "consistent ethic of life" he regarded as undermining the church's stance on abortion.
In an interview with Religious News Service in November 1993, shortly after the suit against Bernardin was filed, the controversial priest referred to Bernardin as "an evil man."
Fiore told RNS that he spoke "several times" with Cook, though he could not remember the specific days, and also said he spoke to Cook's mother twice.
At the time of the interview, Fiore said he had been in contact with victims of priest sex abuse in about 75 to 100 cases. Fiore said he supplied Rubino "with some research and factual material that went into the complaint and some other points. In the course of events, he put me in touch with Steve Cook."
In more recent interviews, Fiore said that not only did he not urge Cook to name the cardinal in his lawsuit, but at that point the claim was so near to being filed that "nothing I said could have influenced them to include" the cardinal if they had not already done so.
In the RNS interview, Fiore said Bernardin "has not been totally loyal" to the pope. "On many issues having to do with the life and doctrine of the church, he has said and done things that are doctrinally suspect.
"I've watched this man for years," Fiore said, "I've seen his thumbprints all over the place."
He also expressed his disdain at the time for other church leaders, including Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee. "I dislike these people. I've been a priest for 33 years. I am married to the church, the church is my wife, and I don't like these people playing games with her. I don't like what I see. I don't like their double-dealing with doctrinal matters."
In the recent interviews, Fiore said he still believes Bernardin was guilty as charged even though Cook recanted his accusations as groundless.
Fiore said he is currently in his canonical five-year trial period for becoming a member of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter. The fraternity was established in 1988 to welcome followers of traditionalist Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre who, after the archbishop was excommunicated, wanted to remain within the church.
Fiore joined the Chicago Province of the Dominicans in 1954 and had a history of disputes with superiors, according to the 1993 RNS account, including a run-in during the late 1970s with the late Cardinal John Cody of Chicago over the priest's fund-raising and antiabortion work. Cody eventually banned Fiore from preaching or making public speeches anywhere in the archdiocese, according to Fiore's superior in 1993.
Relations between Fiore and the Dominicans deteriorated throughout the 1970s and 1980s until the priest was suspended in 1984, according to Dominican officials.
He was then asked by leaders of the province to leave the order and seek affiliation with a diocese.
Fiore was accepted, on an experimental basis, by the Ponce, Puerto Rico, diocese for a five-year period, according to the RNS account. The diocese did not renew the association at the end of the period in 1991. Fiore received permission from the order to continue living outside the Dominicans while searching for another spot. Shortly after, he sought to join the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter.
Catholic News Service contributed to this report.
National Catholic Reporter, February 14, 1997