Diocese leaders knew of former Palm Desert priest's membership in group for troubled clergy
By Christopher Damien
Palm Springs Desert Sun
October 12, 2018
| Sacred Heart Church in Palm Desert |
Photo by Omar Ornelas
|Attorney Jeff Anderson, center, holds photographs of clergy accused of sexual abuse, next to abuse survivor Tom Emens, second from left, on Tuesday in Los Angeles. Survivors of clergy sexual assault announced the filing of a nuisance lawsuit against California Roman Catholic bishops for covering up abuse.|
| Tom Emens of Camarillo is suing California's Catholic bishops and others in an attempt to learn more about the priest he says abused him when he was 10. |
Photo by Tom Kisken
Peter McCormick was already a member of a special religious order that treats clergy who engaged in "deviant" behavior, including but not limited to sexual misconduct, when he was assigned to the Palm Desert’s Sacred Heart Church in 1984, and diocese leaders knew. McCormick has admitted to sexual acts with an adolescent boy for years while he was a priest at the prominent local church.
McCormick began sexually abusing a 13-year-old boy in Hollywood in 1990, which continued until the victim was an adult, according to the diocese. It is unclear if the victim was a member of the Palm Desert church. McCormick was a priest at the church until the victim made the allegation in 2000.
McCormick’s history was made public by the church Monday, when the Diocese of San Bernardino released a list of names of 34 clergy members who had been credibly accused of sexual abuse. The diocese has not released its detailed incident reports, in order to protect the privacy of victims, a diocese spokesman said, but he provided some details to The Desert Sun.
John Andrews, communications director for the Diocese of San Bernardino, said in phone interviews and emails that the victim informed the diocese on Feb. 7, 2000, that he had been abused for years by McCormick. The victim was in his early 20s when he made the allegation. Andrews said McCormick admitted to the relationship, and two days later, diocese leadership told McCormick that he was permanently banned from ministering in the diocese.
McCormick then left California to live with his religious order on Feb. 20, 2000, Andrews said, and he did not know where McCormick went exactly.
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Diocese leaders waited more than two years before filing a police report with the San Bernardino Police Department on April 25, 2002. Andrews said that the San Bernardino Police Department informed authorities in Los Angeles, where the abuse occurred, but to his knowledge, no further action was taken.
The religious order that McCormick is affiliated with is called Servants of the Paraclete. The order refused to disclose McCorkmick's current location to The Desert Sun.
“In anticipation of releasing this list, we called that community and asked where he is now. They said he is not in any public ministry today,” Andrews said.
Servants of the Paraclete was founded in 1947 by Father Gerald Fitzgerald to provide retreat and rehabilitation for priests who are struggling with alcoholism and sexual misconduct.
Father David Fitzgerald, the religious order’s current servant general, refused to answer questions about McCormick’s case and the ministry of the Servants of the Paraclete.
“Thanks for reaching out to us,” Fitzgerald said in a text message response to multiple requests for an interview. “At this time I am not accepting requests for interviews or questions from the media.”
McCormick’s name was included on the list of 34 priests credibly accused of child sexual abuse in San Bernardino and Riverside counties since 1978. Bishop Gerald Barnes, of the Diocese of San Bernardino, said he released the list in an effort to bring more transparency to the child sex abuse scandal that has embroiled the church for more than 15 years.
“As we continue to come to grips with the past and present realities of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, I have made the decision to make public the names of all priests who have ministered in the Diocese of San Bernardino that have credible allegations of sexual abuse of a minor,” Barnes wrote in a public letter published on the diocesan website.
Despite Barnes’ move toward transparency, some victims of the sexual abuse scandal and their advocates say more still needs to be done.
Tom Emens is a victim advocate and survivor of sexual abuse by a priest at a church in Anaheim in the 1970s and '80s. On Oct. 2, Emens and his lawyers, Jeff Anderson and Mike Reck, filed a civil suit in Los Angeles against California’s 11 dioceses.
Emens is not seeking a monetary settlement, but is demanding that the California dioceses identify every clergy member accused of sexual misconduct.
“Disclosure of a complete list is our objective,” Reck said. “We are aware of the list the Diocese of San Bernardino released, but it is our position that this list is incomplete."
Anderson agreed with his co-counsel that the Diocese of San Bernardino’s list is not enough. The suit demands the release of documents reporting the abuse and the whereabouts of the suspected abusers.
“We’re glad about any kind of disclosure, but it’s a half-truth,” Anderson said. “We know there are more.”
John Andrews, the Diocese of San Bernardino spokesman, said that the release of the list was unrelated to Emens' suit.
Emens’ case is rooted in a widely shared belief among victims and victim advocates that the church should give a full account of who the priests accused of abuse are, and whether they had previous allegations of abuse in other dioceses.
While the diocese was aware that the Servants of the Paraclete treated priests struggling with deviant behavior when McCormick was assigned to Palm Desert, diocese leaders did not believe his affiliation with the order indicated any risk that he would commit sexual abuse.
“The Diocese was aware of the charism of the Servants of the Paraclete to serve people, including priests, that have struggled with sexual misconduct and substance abuse, among other issues,” Andrews said. “As we would do with any religious order priest who sought to minister in the Diocese, we look at the individual priest to see if they are fit for ministry here, on a case-by-case basis. When Fr. McCormick came to the Diocese in 1984, it was determined that he was fit to minister here.”
Charism is a term used by the church to refer to a divinely inspired religious calling to perform a certain ministry.
The history of the Servants of the Paraclete and its ministry to sexual predators in the church goes back decades and was revealed in letters from its founder unsealed in a case in New Mexico in 2007.
In 2009, the National Catholic Reporter reported that the founder of the Servants of the Paraclete, Gerald Fitzgerald, had grown concerned about pedophaeliac sexual abuse in the Catholic Church as early as 1952. Fitzgerald had established the group to help clergy dealing with sexual misconduct, such as having sexual relationships with women despite their vow of celibacy. What surprised him was the number of clergy coming to the group because of sexual abuse of children. Gerald Fitzgerald wrote a number of letters to inform church leaders about what he saw, and that he doubted the group’s ability to reform them.
In August, a grand jury in Pennsylvania released a report alleging the Catholic Church had attempted to cover up sexual abuse by more than 300 priests in the state over a period of 70 years. The report found that the church had gone to great lengths to deal with abuse internally, rather than go to the police.
When asked why the Diocese of San Bernardino waited two years to report McCormick’s abuse to the police, Andrews said it was not their policy to report abuse directly to the police when the report was first made to them.
“Well, in the year 2000 we had not yet adopted a policy where we immediately report to the police,” Andrews said. “It became our policy in 2002 and that is our policy now.”
Statements released on the Diocese of San Bernardino’s website say the diocese has a zero-tolerance policy for clergy with credible allegations of abuse and work closely with law enforcement on all reports.
“I think that, the thing that we should have done in 2000, is make an immediate report to the police once we had contact with the victim,” Andrews said. “The other thing we should have done, which we do today, is that we should have read a letter at mass in the congregation. That should have been done and it was not.”
Monsignor Howard Lincoln of Sacred Heart said that the church had not received any other complaints about McCormick’s conduct while a priest there. Sacred Heart Church will acknowledge McCormick’s abuse at services this weekend.
“I will be mentioning at all my masses this weekend that McCormick’s name appears on the diocesan list,” Lincoln said by email.