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  Priest Takes on Bishop
Letter from Vatican Circulated in Parish

By Annmarie Timmins
Monitor [Dover NH]
September 7, 2003

Bishop McCormack says he supported the Rev. Paul Gregoire's attempt to clear his name and get his job back. The priest says he's seen no evidence.

DOVER - A Catholic priest who overcame a sexual misconduct allegation to return to his parish last month broke his silence yesterday and challenged Bishop John McCormack's version of events by circulating his private correspondence from the Vatican.

In recent days McCormack has insisted that he had privately supported the Rev. Paul Gregoire's push to get his job back despite pulling him from St. Charles parish in Dover in December and repeatedly calling the sexual misconduct claim against him credible.

But Friday, Gregoire said he had seen no evidence of McCormack's support and said McCormack had frequently demanded he resign. In speaking out, Gregoire, 74, is one of the few priests to publicly criticize McCormack's handling of sexual misconduct allegations.

"(McCormack) has got a p.r. man that can speak for him," Gregoire said. "But it's always one-sided. People should know the facts."

Gregoire's letter from the Vatican, which he distributed at weekend Masses in the parish bulletin beginning last night, says Vatican officials cleared Gregoire and granted his appeal of his removal because they didn't see enough evidence to support the allegation against him.

The Vatican's letter does not acknowledge any support for Gregoire from McCormack, who has said recently that it was he who told the Vatican to return Gregoire to active ministry.

In the parish bulletin, Gregoire bolded and enlarged the most pertinent passage of his letter from the Vatican and labeled it, "Rome has spoken."

"Having carefully studied the acts presented by Bishop McCormack, this (Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith) has concluded that the evidence presented is insufficient to support the allegation of sexual abuse of a minor in your case," the letter reads. "The (congregation) . . . is disposed to grant the (appeal) which you presented against Bishop McCormack's (decision to put you on leave)."

Pat McGee, spokesman for the diocese, refused to acknowledge the Vatican's conclusions in the Gregoire matter until he learned Friday afternoon that a reporter had seen the Vatican's letter to Gregoire. Around 9:30 p.m. Friday night, McGee sent an e-mail response that said Rome had, in fact, sent a second letter to McCormack that concurred with McCormack's version of events, namely that McCormack had deemed the evidence against Gregoire lacking and had recommended the Vatican return him to ministry.

"In the letter which (the Vatican) sent to Bishop McCormack, it responded definitively and accepted the bishop's conclusion and recommendation," McGee's e-mail read. "The (Vatican) also addressed a letter to Fr. Gregoire himself. This letter was separate and distinct from the correspondence addressed to Bishop McCormack."

McGee declined to release a copy of McCormack's letter from the Vatican or a copy of McCormack's recommendations to Rome regarding Gregoire. "The bishop is not free to do that," he said.

Even Gregoire said he does not have a copy of the letter.

McGee refused to speculate as to why Gregoire's letter from the Vatican did not acknowledge any support from McCormack. And he would not discuss parishioners' claims Friday that the state Attorney General's office has begun investigating McCormack's handling of the Gregoire case.

James Rosenberg, an assistant attorney general, said it would be inappropriate to confirm or deny the existence of an investigation, but several parishioners said they have been contacted by an investigator from the Attorney General's office about the case.

"I don't know of any formal investigation," McGee said. "We continue to do our best to have a good relationship with the Attorney General's office."

Constant critics

In McCormack's nearly five years of handling sexual misconduct cases in New Hampshire, rarely has he encountered the kind of organized public criticism and tireless feisty resistance that he has in the case of Paul Gregoire.

The case, however, began like most others, with an adult alleging misconduct from many years earlier.

In August 2002, the Diocese of Manchester learned in a phone call from the Seattle diocese that a woman there had just accused Gregoire of touching her breast while hugging her 30 years earlier. Gregoire was assigned to the accuser's parish at the time and was close with her family. He said the woman alleged the incident had happened during a holiday dinner in 1971 or 1972 at her family's home with her parents and brother in the room.

After the Manchester diocese interviewed the woman by telephone in September 2002, a priest working with the Diocesan Review Board questioned Gregoire in early October and then again later that month. Gregoire said he recognized the name of his accuser because he remains close with her family and knew she had struggled with a lifetime of mental instability and hospitalization.

"I knew nothing would come of it," said Gregoire. He acknowledged that he had likely hugged her and didn't dispute that he could have brushed the accuser's breast but insisted it hadn't been sexual.

The day before Thanksgiving, McCormack called Gregoire to his Manchester office and told him he was being put on administrative leave because McCormack and the Diocesan Review Board considered the allegation credible, Gregoire said. In that meeting, McCormack also requested that Gregoire resign.

"I was stunned," Gregoire said. "When he asked if I had anything to say, I said you're kicking me out, but I'm not resigning. I said no, I would not resign my parish."

McGee confirmed yesterday that McCormack had asked Gregoire to resign in that November meeting and again in the months that followed. He also confirmed that McCormack eventually went a step further, removing Gregoire as pastor in May after Gregoire refused to go willingly.

McGee said it would be unreasonable to conclude that McCormack's decision to remove Gregoire reflected the diocese's conclusion about the allegation. McGee also said he didn't believe parishioners would have considered Gregoire guilty had Gregoire agreed to resign.

McCormack met equal resistance from Gregoire's parish council once its members learned in early December that their priest had been removed. Council members asserted themselves immediately, refusing to alert the parish's 350 families unless the diocese's suggested letter to parishioners stated that the parish council continued to support Gregoire.

In the two weeks that followed Gregoire's removal, the diocese received a flurry of correspondence from Gregoire's supporters. His friends wrote demanding to know the diocese's reasons for removing him. The Rev. Edward Arsenault, who supervises the investigation of misconduct allegations, answered many e-mails with reassurance that the allegation was credible.

"The reason for his being placed on administrative leave is that the accusation was found to be credible after a thorough investigation," Arsenault wrote to Eileen Nadeau of Dover in mid-December. He told another supporter there was "nothing nebulous" about the woman's accusation.

Around that same time, the diocese also heard from the accuser's mother. Gregoire and two other supporters who read her Dec. 14 letter said she defended Gregoire and urged the diocese to be wary of her daughter's claims because her daughter suffered from emotional problems and delusions.

In January, the accuser's brother, who lives in the Seacoast and attends St. Charles, also wrote a letter defending Gregoire.

Those letters, however, did not change the tone or message of the diocese's responses to Gregoire's supporters. As late as March, months after both letters had come into the diocese, McCormack responded to the parish council's ongoing complaints with firmness.

"The accusation has been determined to be credible by the Diocesan Review Board after a thorough investigation," he wrote. "My decision to remove Father Gregoire from ministry is based on . . . the safety of our children and the credible accusation by a woman harmed as a child. In light of the above reasons, I have no plans to assign him to ministry."

Neither Gregoire nor the parish council was willing to leave it at that.

Vatican appeals

While Gregoire refused McCormack's orders to resign and challenged McCormack privately with two appeals to the Vatican, Gregoire's parish council sustained a nine-month public fight to restore their priest. Parishioners led a petition drive supporting Gregoire, wrote letters to newspapers and mailed pleas to highly-placed church leaders in Rome and the United States.

"We just kept it up," said Richard Valliere of Dover, chairman of the parish council. "We corresponded with the bishop personally. When that didn't work, we tried letters to the editor. When that didn't work, we just decided it was time to go over his head."

In the nine months between Gregoire's removal in December and his reinstatement last month, Gregoire said he never heard a word of support from McCormack.

"(McCormack) never told me that he recommended my return or was interceding for me," Gregoire said. "The only times we conversed (in my nine-month leave) was when he wanted me to resign. I thought it was over."

Gregoire's letter from the Vatican refers to two attempts by McCormack to remove Gregoire. On Dec. 13, 2002, McCormack put Gregoire on administrative leave, and on May 1, he removed him as St. Charles's priest.

McGee confirmed those dates and actions but said McCormack never sent that information to the Vatican. He said McCormack corresponded with the Vatican only after the diocese's investigation concluded in June and left McCormack convinced the evidence was insufficient.

That version is in slight contrast to one offered in late August by Arsenault, whose office oversaw the investigation. In late August, Arsenault said new evidence had surfaced that had changed McCormack's mind and led him to fight for Gregoire's return.

McGee said yesterday he could not comment on what Arsenault had said, and Arsenault was not available for comment.

Gregoire said he first heard McCormack express confidence in him on Aug. 21, a week after the Vatican's decision had been received at the Manchester diocese. McCormack told Gregoire he was returning him to ministry at St. Charles.

Together, McCoramack and Gregoire told the parish council in a private meeting. Gregoire did not protest when he heard McCormack insist that he had urged the Vatican to restore Gregoire to his parish.

"I didn't have to," Gregoire said this week. "My parish council did it for me."

Gregoire still questions why his letter reads differently than the one McCormack has told parishioners and the state's priests he received from the Vatican. He is troubled that it does not mention McCormack's support for him.

"It would be in there, don't you think?" he said. "It doesn't mention that he interceded for me. I think it would be in there."

Sunday, September 7, 2003

 
 

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