"Our fathers claimed, by obvious madness moved, Man's innocent until his guilt is proved. They would have known, had they not been confused, He's innocent until he is accused." - Ogden Nash, poet and humorist


On November 11, 1993, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago was accused in a lawsuit filed in federal court in Cincinnati of sexually abusing a young man during the 1970s. Less than four months later, the allegations were dropped, and the case against Bernardin was dismissed. Swift justice. Yet the presumption of innocence is inextricably bound to the news coverage of inflammatory allegations that ripen on the filing of a lawsuit. As Ogden Nash recognized, the damage is often deepest in the telling.

The swift resolution of the Bernardin case provided an ideal setting for Northwestern University's Annenberg Washington Program in Communications Policy Studies, Medill School of Journalism, and School of Law to cosponsor a half-day conference to address the recurring issue of guilt by allegation. The scenario is common, but unexplored. The filing of a civil suit, with the titillation of plausible wrongdoing, poses a dilemma for courts, journalists, and the parties involved: how to inform the public of potential wrongdoing without leaving an indelible stain on the innocent and exposing the process to justice by public relations damage control.

The half-day conference, Guilt by Allegation: Lessons from the Cardinal Bernardin Case, was convened at the Northwestern School of Law in Chicago and featured two panels of 12 participants each and audience give-and-take, directed by two moderators. The intent was to explore the issues, first, from the perspective of those who were directly involved in the coverage of the Bernardin case and, second, from the perspective of those who would address broader ongoing questions. The conference isolated the Bernardin case for the first panel then branched out into the core issues, recognizing that recent inflammatory allegations have implicated not only cardinals, presidents, public officials, and rock stars but also priests, social workers, school teachers, lawyers, and journalists.

The issues examined included editorial decision making; institutional ethics, norms, and assumptions across the lines of journalism, law, and church; and basic fairness to both accused and accuser. When the conference concluded, the issues continued to be aired in, among other places, the New York Times, Newsday, the Milwaukee Journal, and on WTTW-TV's "Chicago Tonight" (see appendix for two examples).

Newton N. Minow, Director of The Annenberg Washington Program, welcomed the conferees with a reminder from the annals of the City News Bureau in Chicago: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." He noted that when he first became aware of the allegations against Cardinal Bernardin as he watched Cable News Network (CNN), he sensed that this would be a case of media and public manipulation. He questioned whether rushing to reach judgment was necessary and set the tone for the conference by invoking an Irish blessing: "May you have the hindsight to know where you've been, the foresight to know where you are going, and the insight to know when you've gone too far."

With that, he introduced a videotape of Cardinal Bernardin, who told reporters on February 28, 1994, the day the suit against him was dropped: "I'm concerned 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 trust that after reflection, the appropriate persons will address this issue so that others will be spared this travesty."

Citing the cardinal's words as invocation for the ensuing three-and-a-half hours of robust dialogue, Jack C. Doppelt, conference convener and Associate Professor at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, introduced John Callaway, host and Senior Correspondent of WTTW-TV's "Chicago Tonight" and moderator for the first panel.