Bishop Often Sided with Priests in Abuse Cases
Records Show McCormack Brushed Aside Accusations
By Thomas Farragher and Matt Carroll
January 26, 2003
A decade ago, when Cardinal Bernard F. Law wanted to reassure Boston Catholics with a new policy requiring that abusive priests be removed from duty, it seemed natural to call on the Rev. John B. McCormack to help craft it.
As guardian of his church's most tightly held secrets, McCormack knew more about priests who molested children than almost any other clergyman.
But almost immediately, McCormack's penchant for protecting priests in trouble trumped his new policy. Six weeks after its adoption, he was seeking an exemption for the Rev. Raymond C. Plourde.
McCormack thought Plourde should remain as pastor of his Newburyport parish even though he had admitted to molesting a 12-year-old boy.
An archdiocesan review board sharply disagreed. ''For the good of the church,'' it concluded, ''the priest must resign.'' Plourde became a convent chaplain until his retirement last year.
McCormack's advocacy for Plourde, who he believed had undergone a ''true conversion,'' was hardly an exception.
A Globe examination of thousands of pages of internal church records make clear that McCormack, now bishop of the Manchester, N.H., diocese, was an administrator whose first sympathies frequently lay with his brother priests. With him, their words often carried greater weight than those of their victims.
As Law's secretary for ministerial personnel, McCormack's practice was to confer directly with an accused priest, but he frequently heard the victim's story only by proxy, through an aide's written report. When he did come face-to-face with victims, McCormack sometimes reacted to their charges skeptically, and even dismissively. In one case, he told a parent that a priest could not have molested children, when he knew otherwise.
He gently directed accused priests to lawyers and therapists and seemed especially solicitous of his seminary classmates, sometimes clearing the way for their return to ministry despite evidence in church files about their sexual misconduct.
''There was never an intent by Bishop McCormack to protect a priest to the detriment of a victim,'' McCormack's spokesman, Patrick McGee, said last week. ''His job was twofold: to help the victim and assist the priest. The balance is hard to measure.''
McCormack was a member of the St. John's Seminary class of 1960. So were Joseph E. Birmingham, Paul R. Shanley, Bernard J. Lane, and James D. Foley. And when those priests were accused of misconduct, they found a firm ally at the chancery in McCormack.
''Sometimes friendships blind you,'' said the Rev. Paul W. Berube, a close friend and 1960 classmate of McCormack's. ''Joe Birmingham was a friend. There is no objectivity among friends.''
McCormack's indulgent handling of some priests stands out in even sharper relief because he didn't always act that way. The church files chronicle many cases in which he moved discreetly yet decisively against priests whose misbehavior was beyond dispute.
Discretion, the records make clear, was the key. His guiding principle appeared to be the avoidance of public scandal.
''People like McCormack were picked as bishops because they were the types of priests who put the institutional church first,'' said the Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a Notre Dame theologian who graduated from St. John's Seminary two years after McCormack. ''And the worst thing that can happen to the institutional church is scandal.''
Indeed, that 1993 policy - by design or not - helped keep the extent of the sexual abuse problem secret. But the policy and its implementers also allowed the scandal to fester and grow until it exploded into public view a year ago.
It was decisions ultimately made by Cardinal Law - the first US bishop to lose his job for mismanaging sexually abusive priests - that paved the way for disaster for the church. But Law acted often on the advice of McCormack.
The New Hampshire bishop declined Globe requests for an interview.
''He recognizes there are things he didn't do as well as he should have,'' McGee said. ''He has repeatedly apologized.''
But for critics and protesters, who plan to gather in Manchester today, that is not enough. With Law gone in disgrace, they say McCormack, too, must go.
Restricted seminary life
McCormack, 67, grew up in Cambridge, graduated from Boston College High School in 1952, and entered Cardinal O'Connell Seminary, where a young John J. Geoghan, the pedophile priest whose case would one day cross his desk, was also enrolled. When he entered St. John's Seminary in the late 1950s, McCormack's life was rigidly circumscribed by rules crafted to instill humility and acquiescence.
There was no television. Radios were not allowed in rooms. A summary of Eisenhower-era news, clipped from the pages of The New York Times, was posted on a common bulletin board.
''The place was a clerical West Point,'' Berube recalled. ''What it did was create a bonding experience that people who go through tough times like those in a boot camp or even a concentration camp share. ... You didn't learn to assert yourself; you had to learn that later on. What they produced every year was a group of men who were very obedient.''
After seven years as a parish priest, McCormack was placed on a different ecclesiastical path. He got a master's degree in social work from Boston College in 1969 and became director of North Shore Catholic Charities. And when the newly arrived Archbishop Law needed a new personnel chief in 1984, McCormack said he had the requisite experience ''in understanding and handling issues in human behavior.''
He would need it.
Almost instantly, McCormack was dealing with accusations by adults who said they had been abused as children by priests - often priests who were still in ministry. McCormack's practice was to summon the priest, assess the charges, order an in-patient psychiatric assessment, and then recommend whether the priest was fit to return to his rectory.
In the meantime, he also served as chief counselor to the accused priest and a key tactician for an archdiocese eager to settle or suppress the charges.
There was a premium on secrecy. When Sister Catherine E. Mulkerrin, the nun on his staff who dealt most closely with abuse victims, suggested to McCormack that parishioners be alerted when a molester had been in their midst, McCormack and other church officials killed the idea.
That decision ran contrary to a recommendation by US Catholic bishops that the church be forthright with parishioners. But McCormack's failure to follow the bishops' guidelines came as no surprise to Mulkerrin.
She viewed herself as the victim's voice at the chancery. McCormack, she recently testified, was more concerned about his fellow priests.
McCormack's special sensitivity for those priests shows through even in cases in which he removed priests from parish work.
When the Rev. Paul J. Tivnan was accused in 1985 of molesting a teenage boy, he admitted to a sexual addiction. McCormack advised Tivnan to stay away from Immaculate Conception Parish in Marlborough, where the molestation occurred. ''If he needed to go to the rectory, do it quietly,'' McCormack wrote in a memo after meeting with Tivnan.
Some of McCormack's superiors favored giving Tivnan another chance in another parish. McCormack instead steered him into a chaplain's job at hospitals and nursing homes. In 1988, he persuaded a county prosecutor not to pursue charges against Tivnan because he was being treated for sexual disorders.
A year later, McCormack was drawn into what was to become the Boston archdiocese's most notorious abuse case when the boyfriend of a Jamaica Plain woman notified authorities that the Rev. John J. Geoghan may have sexually abused her 10-year-old son. McCormack, who summarized the case for his superiors in 1989, said the child had mimicked performing oral sex on his 3-year-old brother and said that he had learned to do it from ''Father.''
That incident prompted Geoghan's removal from St. Julia's in Weston for psychiatric treatment. But six months later, Geoghan was returned to St. Julia's. By the time he was removed again three years later, he had molested many more children.
Before dealing with sexual abuse cases became his full-time job in 1992, the volume of the work was not overwhelming. But it was bad enough to prepare him for the deluge to come.
Church records that are now in court files show a steady trickle of complaints to the chancery until the spring of 1992 when the sexual assaults by the Rev. James R. Porter of the Fall River diocese, who is now defrocked and imprisoned, exploded across newspapers and television screens nationwide. And then a dam burst.
Before long, complaints of sexual abuse by priests serving in the archdiocese began to arrive weekly.
And then, like ubiquitous car alarms whose piercing alerts no longer stir urgency for passersby, reports of sexual assault by Roman Catholic priests were so common that McCormack and other church officials often reacted to them with a startling, bureaucratic nonchalance.
Flood of complaints
Where personnel directors at other large organizations deal with health benefits, 401(k) programs, and employees who abuse sick leave, McCormack's chancery office had an added preoccupation.
In one week in 1994, for instance, McCormack was juggling issues concerning six priests accused of sexual misconduct. He pronounced the Rev. Peter J. Frost, accused of molesting a 13-year-old boy, to be ''honest and involved in his recovery.'' He reviewed a complaint that the Rev. Ronald H. Paquin abused two brothers, sometimes during overnight stays in his rectory bedroom. He received an alert that the Rev. Ernest E. Tourigney, another priest removed for sexual molestation, was not spending much time at the residence to which he had been assigned.
''In general,'' said McGee, McCormack's spokesman, ''he tried to be as fair with everyone as he could.''
And he was monitoring reports about his classmates, Shanley and Lane, and other priests who have been at the center of some of the worst abuse cases uncovered in the scandal that began unfolding a year ago.
It was McCormack who carried on a friendly correspondence with Shanley, even though he knew Shanley had publicly endorsed sex between men and boys. In 1991, he visited Shanley, now awaiting trial on three counts of child rape, in California, where Shanley and another priest later operated a clothing-optional gay motel.
In one deposition, a plaintiff's attorney asked McCormack about the friendly phrasing in one of his letters to Shanley in which he marveled at the priest's ability to ''maintain your sense of humor in the midst of your difficulties.''
McCormack said he was simply trying to supply pastoral support. ''If you read the letter, you know all the complaints that he had and yet he maintained a sense of humor, and I guess my sense is that I was trying to be supportive of that so that he didn't get any more, for want of a word, depressed,'' the bishop testified.
McCormack said he does not consider himself Shanley's friend. ''We were friendly,'' he said in a deposition. ''I wouldn't say friends.''
McCormack makes the same distinction with Birmingham, the late priest who is accused of molesting more than 50 boys in parishes in Sudbury, Salem, and Lowell. But it is clear the men were not mere acquaintances.
McCormack was his classmate. He lived in the same rectory in Salem with him after ordination. And he traveled with Birmingham and three other priests to France and Italy where they celebrated the 25th anniversary of their ordination in 1985.
''There could have been a basic human blind spot with Birmingham,'' Berube said. ''I don't know. I'm putting myself in that same position. I knew Birmingham. We went off and spent days off together. I never saw it.''
Birmingham's accusers charge McCormack with being an enabler of his abuse. James M. Hogan of Wilmington, Del., says Birmingham took him to his rectory bedroom in Salem in the 1960s. Hogan said he is certain McCormack, who was then assigned to the parish, saw Birmingham taking him into his bedroom.
''McCormack was a witness,'' Hogan said last week. ''This guy knew what was going on.''
McCormack has denied that he ever saw Birmingham, who died in 1989, take boys into his rectory bedroom. Last week, McGee, McCormack's spokesman, said the bishop has no recollection of what Hogan asserts. Back then, McGee said, McCormack had no suspicions about Birmingham.
But McCormack has acknowledged that about 1970, when he was regional director of Catholic Charities, he was warned by several parents that Birmingham had molested children at St. James in Salem. He said he referred the parents to Birmingham's pastor but did nothing else.
In 1987, when the father of a 13-year-old altar boy serving with Birmingham wrote a letter asking whether Birmingham was the same priest who had previously been removed from another parish because of a sexual abuse allegation, McCormack's answer was evasive. ''There is absolutely no factual basis to your concern,'' McCormack wrote back.
Asked why he did not tell the concerned father that his son was indeed serving with the same Father Birmingham, McCormack said, ''I can't explain why I didn't tell the full story. ...
''I spoke to Father Birmingham,'' McCormack testified last June. ''I told him that I knew about the reports about sexual abuse and I was wondering whether, you know, he had stopped this. And he had told me he's been clean.''
For McCormack, that was good enough.
When a third seminary classmate, the Rev. Bernard J. Lane, admitted he had had inappropriate contact with a young boy, McCormack puzzled his superior when he recommended that Lane's case not be sent to the archdiocesan review board, which heard allegations against priests.
''I recommend the matter not be pursued,'' McCormack wrote in May 1993, dismissing the charges against Lane as not credible. ''If you would like this presented to the Sexual Misconduct Review Board, I would do so. However, I do not encourage it.''
That suggestion appears to have troubled Bishop Alfred C. Hughes, who also knew Lane's history. On McCormack's memo, Hughes scribbled: ''Why do you recommend not going before the board?''
Hughes prevailed. Lane was placed on sick leave, and resumed ministry at a home for retired priests in the late 1990s before retiring in 1999. He has since been accused of abusing at least 17 men and the archdiocese has settled at least six molestation complaints against him.
It is also McCormack's apparent insensitivity toward victims that has quickened the drumbeat of demands that he step down as New Hampshire's bishop.
In 1985, McCormack reacted nonchalantly when a woman alerted the chancery that Shanley had given a talk in Rochester, N.Y., in which he endorsed sexual relations between men and boys. In a subsequent letter to Shanley, McCormack wrote: ''Would you care to comment on the remarks she made. You can either put them in writing or we could get together some day about it.'' There is no evidence in church files that Shanley responded in writing or that McCormack ever followed up.
In 1988, Peter Pollard, who says he was molested by the Rev. George Rosenkranz at Star of the Sea parish in Marblehead in the mid-1960s, met with McCormack soon after reporting his alleged abuse to the archdiocese. But McCormack told Pollard he had found nothing to justify removing the priest from ministry. McCormack said Rosenkranz merely had ''sexual issues,'' adding that what Pollard viewed as abuse - acts that included kissing and Rosenkranz's request that he masturbate in front of him - may simply have been expressions of affection, according to Pollard. ''I was stunned,'' Pollard recalled.
In 1991, when a priest told McCormack that the Rev. Ronald H. Paquin might be molesting a teenage Haverhill boy, McCormack did not report the alleged abuse to state authorities. Asked during a deposition last year why he had not done so, McCormack replied, ''because I didn't think there was any [sexual] activity going on. ... Father Paquin assured me there wasn't.'' A plaintiffs' lawyer then asked: ''This is the same Father Paquin that you had a credible report about him molesting two boys a year earlier, correct?'' ''Correct,'' McCormack answered.
In 1993, when chancery officials found records showing that the Rev. James D. Foley had sought a transfer to the Calgary diocese because of a sexual affair with a Boston woman - and transferred back because of additional sexual activity in Canada - McCormack's immediate impulse was to forgive. ''Sounds to me that he was dealing with `growing up' issues and seemingly has handled them well since he returned,'' McCormack wrote in a note contained in church records.
When McCormack left Boston for Manchester in September 1998, he may well have believed the scandal he and his church colleagues managed to contain for so long was well behind him.
But today, with protesters planning to stand outside his church and demand his resignation, McCormack feels under siege, misunderstood, and falsely accused, according to those who have met with him recently.
''There's a lot of things he simply didn't know,'' said Berube, the friend and classmate who went skiing with McCormack earlier this month. ''They were operating on the advice of the psychological community. There was a natural tendency to move priests around to give them another chance, never knowing the harm that was being done.''
But as recently as last year, McCormack's attempt to protect yet another accused priest outraged Catholics in his own diocese.
In June 2002, he reassigned the Rev. Roland P. Cote to a Jaffrey, N.H., parish even though Cote had admitted to a sexual affair with a male teenager. McCormack did not inform parishioners about Cote's past.
After news reports, the priest admitted to parishioners in September that he had a long-term affair with the boy in the 1980s. State prosecutors have said they cannot bring charges against the priest because they could not determine whether the alleged victim, who is now in his mid-30s, was 16 or older when he first met Cote. The Cote case, and the bishop's well-documented role in the church scandal in Boston, seem to have undermined his standing in the eyes of many New Hampshire Catholics.
When a group of church members who recommended policy changes designed to prevent clergy sexual abuse issued a report earlier this month, they noted that many New Hampshire Catholics believe McCormack should not preside over a changed church.
''The most common sentiment expressed on the part of those speaking at listening sessions was that Bishop McCormack should resign,'' the group said in its report. ''There was considerable concern that Bishop McCormack does not have the moral authority to implement the revised policy on sexual misconduct nor to lead the church forward in the healing process.''
For others, the loss of faith in McCormack is more personal.
Gary Bergeron of Lowell, an alleged victim of Birmingham, has met with the bishop twice, most recently last Monday. Bergeron said the New Hampshire bishop is scheduled to meet this Tuesday in Salem with more than 100 alleged victims of Birmingham and their families.
''For me to say to John McCormack, `I want you to resign' and for him to resign tomorrow means nothing to me,'' said Bergeron. ''If John McCormack meets with victim after victim and feels their pain and looks in the mirror and says, `Oh my God, what have I done?' That means something because he's owning it at that point.
''He's now feeling the pain that thousands are feeling. He said to me that his past haunts him. And I told him, `Your past haunts me, too.'''
Sacha Pfeiffer, Michael Rezendes, Walter V. Robinson, and Stephen Kurkjian of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.
This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 1/26/2003.
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.
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