CNN Web posted

November 14, 1996

Cardinal Bernardin, 68, was highly respected mediator

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Roman Catholic bishops remembered Cardinal Joseph Bernardin Thursday as a soft-spoken man who mediated disputes among bishops and opposing liberal and conservative church factions.

[Goedert] Bernardin, 68, leader of Chicago's 2.3 million Catholics, died of cancer early Thursday at his home, surrounded by friends and family.

The bishops, many of whom had known Bernardin for decades, marked his passing with a prayer as they opened the final session of the annual fall meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Bishop Anthony M. Pilla of Cleveland, president of the conference, an office Bernardin once held, asked God to "open the arms of your mercy to your faithful servant, Joseph. Welcome him forever into the presence of Christ."

Pilla read a message of condolence from Pope John Paul II, who wrote,

The senior Roman Catholic prelate in the United States, Bernardin underwent surgery for pancreatic cancer in June 1995, and announced August 30 that the cancer had spread and was inoperable. He gave up his day-to-day duties October 31. Bernardin was highly respected by leaders of all faiths and sustained a powerful voice on various spiritual matters.

Shortly before his death, Bernardin wrote to the U.S. Supreme Court to speak out against assisted suicide.

Bernardin's most searing moment of national attention came in November 1993, when he was accused of having sexually abused a young man, Steven Cook, years earlier while Bernardin was archbishop of Cincinnati. Cook recanted the accusation and reconciled with Bernardin before dying of AIDS last year.

Ironically, Bernardin had established a system for dealing with sexual accusations against priests that was considered a model for other dioceses. His vindication after calmly declaring his innocence and willingness to forgive Cook mitigated damage to the church's image from priest-abuse scandals.

"His transcendence of the personal clerical abuse charges will take on almost epic proportions when people review the priesthood in our times," said Martin E. Marty, a religious historian at the University of Chicago.

Born in Columbia, South Carolina, Bernardin was ordained a priest in 1952 and steadily rose through the ranks in the church hierarchy in Charleston, South Carolina, and Atlanta.

In 1966, he was named the youngest bishop in the country and two years later was elected general secretary of the influential National Conference of Catholic Bishops. In that position, he coordinated the historic reorganization of the American church as part of the Second Vatican Council.

Pope John Paul II in 1983 elevated Bernardin to the elite College of Cardinals. At the time of his death, he was the senior cardinal in the United States.

Church progressive

As cardinal, he represented the American church at numerous high-level policy councils in Rome. In 1983, he received the Albert Einstein Peace Award for his work as chairman of a NCCB Committee that prepared the pastoral letter "The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response."

An advocate of the progressive wing of the church, Bernardin during his final months launched Project Common Ground, an effort to address "increasing polarization" within the church.

In June 1995, Bernardin was found to be suffering from pancreatic cancer, a particularly deadly form of the disease. Surgery failed to stop the disease from spreading to his liver, and he abandoned chemotherapy treatments last month.

Bernardin's graceful confrontation with death drew praise from Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

"The cardinal's courage and faith are inspirational to all of us," Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar told the Chicago Sun-Times.

When asked in his final months how he was coping with impending death, Bernardin said he was "at peace."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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