Priest's Departure Leaves Swirl of Questions

By Kelly Ryan Gilmer
St. Petersburg Times (Florida)
March 29, 2002

The principal at St. Petersburg Catholic High School will miss a role model who inspired him to become a priest.

A parent will miss a priest who delivered eloquent homilies and motivated students to join the National Honor Society.

A freshman will miss a teacher who wandered the lunchroom, checking in with students and greeting them with cheek kisses.

With his resignation, the Rev. Richard McCormick left behind a campus that must face anguishing questions without its spiritual leader.

One week ago, the high school and the Diocese of St. Petersburg made public a female student's allegation that McCormick had harassed her by greeting her with a hug and a kiss. With "mutual agreement" from McCormick, the diocese and the Salesian Society religious order to which the priest belongs, McCormick left the school.

Since then, students, parents and colleagues have been troubled. They described McCormick as an effervescent priest who freely showed his fatherly affection. They don't understand why he had to leave.

Kyle McKeon, a freshman, said McCormick was "a great friend and priest and teacher." He said "Father Mac," as many students called him, would drop by his lunch table, chat about class and give him a kiss on the cheek before talking with other students.

The affection never made him uncomfortable.

"One of the things he always did say was he always was an affectionate man," said McKeon, who was in McCormick's theology class. "He said that if you feel offended by it tell me to stop. He told us that numerous times."

The Rev. Louis Molinelli, the school's principal, has many unanswered questions. He said he was not involved in the investigation or the decision that McCormick, 61, should cut his ties to the school.

Molinelli doesn't even know where McCormick is. Up until one week ago, McCormick lived with Molinelli and three others in the Salesian House behind St. Petersburg Catholic, at 6333 Ninth Ave. N.

The principal met McCormick about 25 years ago, when Molinelli was a high school student and McCormick was teaching nearby in New York. He often saw McCormick surrounded by students, taking them hiking or to amusement parks.

The 6-foot, silver-haired teacher had a knack, Molinelli said, for including students who sometimes were left out.

"I wanted to be as happy as he was, and he was very happy," Molinelli said.

The incident that precipitated McCormick's departure occurred March 11, as students were leaving class. The student, whose identity was not released, said she and McCormick passed in the hallway, and McCormick asked how she was.

The student said McCormick "cupped his hands around her chin and gave her a kiss." The kiss made the student uncomfortable, so she reported it the next day. The diocese did not say where McCormick kissed the student.

McCormick was granted a leave of absence while the diocese investigated. Molinelli said he knows who made the complaint against McCormick but doesn't know all the details.

"Decisions were made out of my hands," Molinelli said. "I don't think Father did anything in a type of malicious way."

The diocese would not say whether its investigation uncovered any wrongdoing by McCormick. Diocese spokeswoman Mary Jo Murphy said Thursday that she could not comment beyond the statement sent out last week.

McCormick could not be reached for comment.

McCormick taught English and theology. Molinelli described him an excellent instructor who wrote meticulous lesson plans and was passionate about literature.

Copley Gerdes, who graduated in 2001, never had McCormick as a teacher but sought his advice on personal issues and writing English papers. Gerdes appreciated that McCormick was always supportive but didn't sugarcoat his advice: "He would say this isn't going to cut it. You've got to do this."

McCormick was the school's director, "the spiritual father of the family." He led prayers before sporting events, worked with the campus ministry and took interest in students who were struggling. He attended boys soccer matches, swim meets and basketball games.

"He was so enthusiastic and loving and exuberant that he may have very well kissed somebody on the cheek," said parent Rosemary O'Connor, whose son is a junior. "I would really be curious what he could have done that would have offended anyone."

Maureen Barnash, whose daughter is a freshman at St. Petersburg Catholic, said McCormick would sit on a bench in the hallway to talk to students and made a point of learning all of their names.

She says he taught with humor and real-life applications.

"There were a lot of times when he was very strict and gave homework assignments that the kids thought were difficult," Barnash said. "Yet they wanted to do it. It's like that magical quality that only some of us get to see in a teacher."


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