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New Testimony Puts Spotlight On N.H. Bishop's Role In Abuse Crisis

Dec 24, 2002 | AP

Previously undisclosed testimony by Bishop John B. McCormack provides fresh ammunition to critics of his response to the growing sexual abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston in the 1980s and 1990s.

McCormack, a top aide to Cardinal Bernard Law from 1984 to 1994, gave the testimony in five closed sessions in civil lawsuits brought by alleged victims of the Rev. Paul Shanley, who is awaiting trial in Massachusetts on charges of child rape.

The Associated Press obtained the hundreds of pages of transcripts, which include McCormack's testimony about his job as Law's point man for sexual abuse allegations against priests.

Highlights include:

When priests admitted sexual misconduct with minors, McCormack did not ask if there were other victims and did not investigate to see if there were.

McCormack had trouble explaining delays in telling church officials in California about abuse allegations against Shanley in Massachusetts.

Shanley warned of disclosures that would create "a media whirlwind," but McCormack did not ask what they were.

McCormack said he believed a 1970 molestation accusation against the Rev. Joseph Birmingham, but does not recall volunteering the information when Birmingham was being made pastor of a church in Gloucester.

McCormack spokesman Patrick McGee said he was disappointed the deposition had been disclosed early, and said the AP's use of it was one-sided and unfair. Among his reasons was that McCormack had not checked it and made any necessary corrections.

McCormack said that in 1993 he was handling about 30 cases of abuse allegations against priests. Asked whether he attempted to determine whether the priests had additional victims who had not come forward, McCormack said he could not recall doing so.

McCormack, who became bishop of New Hampshire in 1998, said one or two priests may have volunteered information suggesting they had additional victims, but McCormack said he did not try to identify them.

He said the church was "trying to deal with this on a pastoral way, and if we started making everything public about what we did, people who were afraid of confidentiality being broken wouldn't come to us."

Boston church files released earlier contain molestation allegations against Shanley dating from the 1960s. By 1990, he was on sick leave and living in California.

When he sought work as a priest in the Diocese of San Bernadino, a Boston church official wrote that Shanley was a priest "in good standing."

Complaints mounted, however, and by 1994, McCormack said he knew Shanley had admitted to molesting four boys. A psychological evaluation warned that Shanley was unlikely to volunteer information about victims, but McCormack said he neither suspected nor asked Shanley whether he had molested other boys.

"He admits to sexual activity with four adolescent males and then talks about sexual activity with men and women over the years," McCormack said. "So it doesn't indicate that, you know, it doesn't indicate that there was sexual activity with other adolescents."

Questioned by lawyer Roderick MacLeish Jr., McCormack acknowledged there were further communications delays between Boston and San Bernadino in 1994.

The archdiocese "had not come up with a recommendation," he explained. "We had, we were dealing with a lot of cases at this time, and I think it was probably much more than that and, you know, looking for some kind of final closure of this case before acting on it."

McCormack also has been criticized for failing to follow up on a 1985 complaint that Shanley, in a speech, said, "When adults have sex with children, the children seduced them," and the children "are the guilty ones."

McCormack has said he raised the issue with Shanley, who said he had been talking about his work with child prostitutes and quoted out of context.

MacLeish asked McCormack why he rarely questioned such unusual and surprising remarks and requests by Shanley. For example, MacLeish cited a May 1990 letter to McCormack in which Shanley said: "I would have to explain to any parishioners what has happened and that would precipitate the media whirlwind. I think the best for all concerned is medical retirement and let me do weekend (substitute duty)."

"Does it appear to you that Paul Shanley is making veiled threats in this letter to you?" MacLeish asked.

"No," McCormack answered.

"Did you ever write back to Paul Shanley and say, `What are you talking about?'"

"No. I did not."

McCormack has acknowledged on at least two occasions taking the word of priests over that of alleged victims.

Among the cases he handled in Boston was that of Birmingham, who attended seminary with McCormack and served with him during the 1960s at St. James in Salem, Mass. Birmingham died in 1989.

McCormack said he believed a man who told him in 1970 that his son had been molested by Birmingham at St. James. McCormack said he reported the allegation to Birmingham's pastor, and encouraged the father to do the same.

But McCormack said that in 1985, when he was secretary of ministerial personnel for the archdiocese, he does not recall volunteering that information when Birmingham was made pastor at St. Ann's in Gloucester.

He said he assumed that those making the assignment already knew.

He also remembered confronting Birmingham once, but could not remember what year it was.

"The only step I remember taking is saying to Father Birmingham one time ... that, you know, `I know about your, about some complaints about you in Salem,'" McCormack said.

"And I said, `I'm wondering, you know, how you're handling that. And he said that `I'm clean.'"

"Did you believe him?" asked lawyer Robert Sherman.

"Yes," McCormack said.

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