McCormack Criticizes Cote Affair Revelations

Manchester (NH) Union Leader
October 1, 2002

Church officials say the way in which public revelations about Rev. Roland P. Cote's long-term sexual affair with a teenager were made are unfair, not only to the priest, but to his parishioners.

"The circumstances under which his past mistakes have been made public are unfair," Manchester Bishop John B. McCormack said in a letter distributed to congregants of St. Patrick Church in Jaffrey Sunday, citing the sequence of events that led to the public statement by newly appointed pastor, Cote.

McCormack added that the disclosures, ". . .have nothing to do with Fr. Cote and everything to do with me and the greater scrutiny under which I serve." Rev. Edward J. Arsenault, who serves as chancellor for the diocese, yesterday echoed McCormack's sentiments.

"I don't think it needed to be made public. I think it became public in a way that was unfair to that (parish) community and to Fr. Cote," said Arsenault. Their comments come in the wake of Cote's announcement Sunday to St. Patrick's parishioners during worship services that he had a homosexual relationship with a teenager from 1985 to 1991.

However, Cote's revelation was the culmination of a three-week process that began when Manchester attorney Peter E. Hutchins filed a Right-to-Know petition Sept. 9 to force state and county prosecutors to turn over Cote's investigative file.

The Union Leader reported the next day that Cote had been investigated for child sexual abuse, but no charges were brought.

Last Friday, McCormack was caught off guard when a Boston attorney deposing him in an unrelated clergy sexual abuse case turned the questioning to Cote.

McCormack replied that he assigned Cote to the Jaffrey parish after Cote admitted having a sexual relationship with a teenage boy years earlier.

McCormack, in a letter distributed to parishioners Sunday, stood behind his decision to transfer Cote, 57, to St. Patrick's even though he did it without telling parishioners about the priest's background.

While Cote violated his promise to lead a chaste and celibate life as a diocesan priest, his behavior was not criminal because Cote was involved in a consensual relationship with a youth who was neither a minor nor a parishioner over whom Cote had authority, McCormack said.

McCormack said Cote assured him that he has reformed his life and has been living a chaste, celibate life for the past several years. He has agreed to submit to a psychological evaluation.

In not telling the parish of Cote's past, McCormack said he was trying to balance a priest's right to privacy against a community's right to know. Arsenault, who handles sexual misconduct cases for the diocese, said he met with Cote and his attorney in May after prosecutors completed their investigation and decided not to prosecute.

The complainant contacted authorities in April.

Arsensault described the relationship as a "series of liaisons" that occurred at Cote's summer house in Newport.

"He told me he was over 18 when it began. I know that's different than what he represented in the original complaint to civil authorities," Arsenault said.

Before filing his Right-to-Know petition, Hutchins said he was assured that the man claimed he was a minor at the time of the abuse. The case couldn't be prosecuted because it was unclear whether the teenager was 15 or 16 at the time, he added.

But Cote claims the relationship began in 1985. If that is the case, then the complainant -- who is now 35 and whose identity is being withheld at his request -- would have had to have been either 17 or 18 at that time. The youth's age is significant because church officials said they do not consider an accusation of sexual misconduct with a minor credible if the complainant is not a minor, or under 18 years old.

The diocese's sexual misconduct policy requires any priest who faces a credible allegation of sexual misconduct with a minor to be removed from active ministry.

The diocese's policy also requires it to inform civil authorities of allegations of sexual misconduct with a minor.

While the diocese's sexual misconduct policies were not put in writing until the early 1990s, the diocese complied with state law during the 1980s that required it to report sexual misconduct with a minor to civil authorities, diocesan spokesman Pat McGee said.

Although the youth didn't know Cote was a priest when the two first met, he realized that before it ended, Arsenault said.

The diocese reached a settlement with the complainant, Arsenault said. He would not discuss its details since the complainant requested it remain confidential.

Catholic church teaching recognizes some people have homosexual orientations, but prohibits any sexual activity outside marriage regardless of whether it is homosexual or heterosexual.

In addition, a priest who engages in sexual activity also violates his promise to lead a chaste and celibate life, said Sr. Maureen Sullivan, O.P., assistant professor of theology at St. Anselm College in Goffstown.

"Any sexual activity on the part of a priest, whether homosexual or heterosexual, would be considered serious sin because of his promise of celibacy," she said. "It's confessional material and needs repentance and a real effort not to engage in this type of behavior."

Meanwhile, revelations about Cote further rocked the parish still reeling from the resignation of its previous pastor, the Rev. James A. MacCormack, in May.

MacCormack sued the bishop and other church leaders in July, claiming they ruined his career because they feared he would disclose the discovery of pornography found in the rectory apartment of a Manchester priest upon his death in 1999.

While Cote was forthright in admitting his past mistakes to his parish Sunday, Sullivan said she can understand why parishioners might be upset.

"Should Bishop McCormack have assigned (Cote) to this parish that already had a problem with the previous priest?" she asked.

"I guess with hindsight and 20-20 vision, maybe the fact that these people already had a dark moment, maybe you would want to send in . . . someone with no blemish whatsoever so there is no possibility that they could be touched again by scandal," she said.

McCormack will celebrate the 9 a.m. Mass at the Jaffrey parish Sunday and meet with parishioners to answer their questions afterwards.


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