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In New Hampshire, Abuse Cases Undermine a Catholic Bishop

October 18, 2002

MANCHESTER, N.H.— A priest was dead in circumstances that suggested a tawdry sexual liaison, and an ecclesiastical cleanup crew was dispatched to his rectory here to scour for anything that might further embarrass the church.

Searching through clothing, furniture and closets, priests found artificial genitalia, leather thongs, sex-enhancing drugs and scores of pornographic videos, which the monsignor leading the operation ordered removed and destroyed.

The church kept these 1999 events secret until a priest made them public earlier this year in an unusual lawsuit he is pursuing against the bishop of Manchester, John B. McCormack. Those events and other revelations have led New Hampshire newspapers and many Roman Catholics to demand Bishop McCormack's resignation. On Oct. 6, parishioners in one church where the bishop said Mass urged him noisily to step down and accused him of lying about a pastor he assigned to their parish without disclosing the priest's affair with a teenage boy.

"I'm not lying!" Bishop McCormack shouted back, according to people at the Mass in Jaffrey, N.H.

During the sexual abuse scandal that has reached into nearly every Catholic diocese, scores of American bishops have felt the sting of public wrath. But scholars who study the church say the crisis has undermined Bishop McCormack more thoroughly, perhaps, than any other sitting bishop besides Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston.

"Few if any bishops have reached such a level of bad feeling among Catholics that their support has been so seriously undercut," said Paul F. Lakeland, a professor of religious studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut.

As a senior aide to Cardinal Law before 1998, and since then in Manchester, Bishop McCormack has been one of a number of American bishops who have been unfailingly respectful of the rights of priests accused of sexual misconduct — so respectful that many Catholics have accused him in lawsuits of brushing aside clerical abuse, enabling sexual predators to victimize again.

His career illustrates the dilemma posed by the Vatican's refusal last week to endorse elements of the American bishops' zero-tolerance abuse policy, adopted to satisfy Catholics demanding that the safety of children be respected as much as priests' canonical rights.

Church documents released by court order this year have shown that as an aide to Cardinal Law during the 1980's and 1990's, Bishop McCormack repeatedly dismissed reports of clerical abuse.

Under mounting criticism, Bishop McCormack stepped down in April as the chairman of the Bishops Conference's Committee on Sexual Abuse. In May, he went on New Hampshire television to say, "I beg your forgiveness," but six days later The Manchester Union Leader replied with a front-page editorial headlined: "For the Good of the Church, Bishop Should Step Aside." In a published reply, Bishop McCormack urged New Hampshire's people to be willing "to place their trust in me." In July, The Union Leader again editorialized that he should resign, saying, "We're sorry, but there is no more room for trust." Other New Hampshire newspapers have also called for his resignation.

Bishop McCormack declined a request for an interview, as he has done for all such requests since May.

The diocesan chancellor, the Rev. Edward J. Arsenault, said that despite some public anger, many Catholics with whom the bishop has met personally support his leadership.

"There is a genuineness about him, and people who have met him can contextualize what he did and didn't do in Boston," Father Arsenault said.

Bishop McCormack graduated in 1960 from St. John's seminary in Boston, where his schoolmates included at least six men later accused as serial pedophiles, among them the Rev. Paul R. Shanley. Bishop McCormack is a defendant in multiple lawsuits lodged this year that say Father Shanley and other priests molested them, and church documents released by court order show that Bishop McCormack, who was ordained a bishop in 1995, repeatedly disputed complaints of abuse from parents and victims.

In 1987, Peter Pollard, then 36, met with the future bishop who was then secretary for ministerial personnel in the Boston Archdiocese, to report that he had been abused as a 16-year-old altar boy by Rev. George Rosenkranz. In Father Rosenkranz's church file at the time of the 1987 meeting was a 1981 police report documenting his arrest that year on charges, later dropped, of having sex with a man in a Sears Roebuck washroom.

Yet Father McCormack told Mr. Pollard that his account lacked credibility, that "there is no sign that Father Rosenkranz is a sexually deviant personality," and that the priest had every right to remain in his parish, Mr. Pollard, who is today a Massachusetts child protective social worker, said in an interview.

This and similar incidents in Bishop McCormack's Boston career have aroused considerable public anger as Bishop McCormack faces challenges in the Manchester diocese. His church's charitable donations have fallen and 140 people have sued the diocese this year, charging victimization by New Hampshire priests, most before the bishop arrived. William Delker, chief of the state attorney general's criminal division, said prosecutors would decide soon whether to bring criminal charges against the diocese for endangering children by failing to remove abusive priests from public ministry in the years before Bishop McCormack's tenure.

Bishop McCormack faced his first local controversy in April when a conflict developed between the bishop and the priest who filed the lawsuit, the Rev. James A. MacCormack, a popular pastor at St. Patrick's parish in Jaffrey, 32 miles southwest of Manchester.

After the priest dismissed a church secretary, the bishop sent him to Canada for psychological evaluation and in May provoked protests in the parish by removing him from his ministry. In July, Father MacCormack sued the Manchester Diocese, accusing the bishop of using the psychological examination to undermine his credibility and saying that when he joined the priesthood the church failed to disclose "that deviant sexual practices were tolerated and countenanced within the diocese."

In court papers and in an interview here, Father MacCormack described how after a Manchester priest was found dead in 1999 with a leather device on his genitals, he participated in the cleanup of the priest's rectory. The diocese acknowledged the incident, but in a statement said that "deviant sexual behavior is not countenanced" in the church.

Indignation at St Patrick's parish boiled over after the bishop, in June, replaced Father MacCormack with the Rev. Roland Cote, whose six-year affair became public in judicial proceedings last month.

Informed by prosecutors that they had investigated but would not prosecute Father Cote, the bishop said he determined that Father Cote's lover was 18 when the relationship began in the 1980's. Law enforcement officials said the boy might have been under 17. The bishop concluded that the affair did not constitute misconduct with a minor and that Father Cote was therefore entitled to continue in ministry, Father Arsenault said.

The diocese paid Father Cote's lover an undisclosed sum of money, and he signed a legal agreement obligating both him and the diocese to keep the affair secret. Some Jaffrey parishioners were infuriated that the bishop did not disclose Father Cote's past to them, partly because St. Patrick's parish runs a parochial school traditionally administered by the pastor, they said in interviews.

"To send us this pastor without revealing his flawed past was like a slap in the face," said William Driscoll, a retired executive who attends St. Patrick's.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests