Survivors, Advocates Step up Calls for N.H. Bishops' Resignations

By Chuck Colbert
National Catholic Reporter [Manchester NH]
October 17, 2003

Nearly 150 protesters -- survivors of sexual abuse by priests, their advocates and church reformers -- marked Bishop John McCormack’s fifth anniversary as head of this statewide diocese Sept. 21 with calls for his resignation and that of Auxiliary Bishop Francis Christian. Demonstrators accused the bishops of covering up cases of sexual abuse by priests in the Manchester diocese and the Boston archdiocese.

Speakers at the protest, which was held outside St. Joseph Cathedral, cited a report by the Massachusetts attorney general that said McCormack, as an auxiliary bishop for Boston, failed to take adequate steps to restrict accused priests’ access to children.

In a 154-page report released in March, the New Hampshire attorney general said that Christian covered up cases of sexual abuse by priests in the New Hampshire diocese.

McCormack and Christian “are personally responsible for enabling perpetrator priests to find many new victims,” said Ann Hagan Webb, New England co-coordinator of the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.

Coalition of Catholics and Survivors cofounder Anne Barrett Doyle said, “A quick survey of the documents finds 22 sexually abusive priests who found an enabler in the permissive Bishop McCormack.”

Representatives from a number of survivor-advocacy groups attended the protest, including those from; Speak Truth to Power, or STTOP; The Linkup; and a new group, New Hampshire Catholics for Moral Leadership.

Since the first large-scale solidarity vigil and silent protest march held last January, a growing sense of moral outrage -- and the need to organize around it -- has gathered steam here. New Hampshire Catholics for Moral Leadership formed in March to bring about a “leadership change” in the diocese. “Our sole focus as a group is to work toward the resignation of our current bishops” and to “express the desire of the people” for “justice and moral leadership,” the group’s mission states.

In July the group hand delivered a petition with 1,100 signatures to the diocesan headquarters, demanding the resignations of McCormack and Christian. The organization charges that McCormack “remains a defendant in numerous civil lawsuits, has been subpoenaed to testify before a criminal grand jury in Massachusetts, and avoided an indictment [in New Hampshire] only by entering a legal settlement with the state’s attorney general,” according to the group’s Web site.

The New Hampshire Catholics organization also says that Christian “has handled many sexual abuse complaints against priests in [the local diocese], often reassigning priests to parish ministry, even after they had admitted sexual misconduct with children.”

The group’s Web site cites documents from the state’s attorney general, showing that “Christian often failed to report cases of abuse even when required by law.”

It continues, “Documents also show that he lied to victims and civil authorities, and worked to cover up cases of sexual abuse by priests. When he was asked to assist in the investigation of the diocese, Christian, through his attorney, asserted his Fifth Amendment right, and declined to answer questions about his handling of abuse allegations.”

At the protest, Anne Coughlin of New Hampshire Catholics said that after such actions, McCormack and Christian “ask Catholics now to trust them with something so unimaginably priceless as our children. Never again.”

A Massachusetts abuse survivor, Peter Pollard, said he first met with McCormack in 1988 when the latter served as secretary of ministerial personnel for the Boston archdiocese and handled sex-abuse allegations there. “I reported to him that I had been sexually abused by my parish priest 20 years earlier,” said Pollard, a member of SNAP. “From our first handshake, until our last conversation, I could tell with certainty that he had chosen to view me as the enemy.”

This past summer, Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly issued a blistering report against the Boston archdiocese for its mishandling of the sex-abuse scandal (NCR, Aug. 1), including McCormack’s role.

“Arguably, Bishop McCormack’s single greatest failing was his inability to establish means for controlling priests who were diagnosed as pedophiles or ephebophiles,” Reilly wrote in the 76-page report. The attorney general wrote that in several cases of abuse -- including those of John Geoghan and Paul Shanley -- “McCormack was aware that the priest[s] had abused children yet he failed to take adequate steps to restrict their ministries or put them under adequate supervision to prevent them from engaging in further abuse of children.”

Pollard urged Catholics to take action. “To the Catholics of New Hampshire who chose not join us here today, I feel compelled to ask this question: Why are you willing to accept moral leadership from these failed men? Why are you not standing up in the aisles demanding that you be given leaders of integrity?” he said. “Only when every Catholic -- every mother, father, aunt and uncle, sister and brother -- assumes personal responsibility, holding priests and bishops accountable for their horrible failures, will the real healing begin.”

Several women religious called for the bishops’ resignations at the rally. One “called on the priests of the diocese to speak up and let people know that the church has not lost its moral fiber.”

McCormack did not say Mass inside the cathedral on the day of the protest. But outside St. Joseph Cathedral, his spokesperson, Patrick McGhee, issued a news statement and gave a low-key rebuttal to the protestors’ charges. His statement said that the church of New Hampshire “remains in solidarity with adult survivors of traumatic child abuse through prayer, personal relationship and assistance.”

In a news release, McCormack stated his willingness to meet with individual survivors of abuse, both past and present. “Meetings like these have proved to be helpful and healing for me, and I have learned from them,” he said.

Freelance journalist Chuck Colbert writes from Cambridge, Mass.

Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.