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N.H. Bishop Admits He Knew of Birmingham Allegations

Jan 9, 2003 | Lowell Sun

When New Hampshire Bishop John B. McCormack was a priest in 1970, he was told that his longtime acquaintance, Rev. Joseph Birmingham, had molested a young boy in Salem, Mass.

McCormack believed the accusation, but did not try to stop Birmingham from becoming a priest St. Michael's Church in Lowell in 1971, according to transcripts made public yesterday. The testimony was given by McCormack in five days of depositions in civil lawsuits brought by alleged victims of the Rev. Paul Shanley, who is awaiting trial in Massachusetts on charges of child rape.

In the closed sessions at the Manchester law office of Sheehan, Phinney, Bass & Green, attorneys for the Manchester Archdiocese, McCormack was questioned by Boston attorneys Roderick MacLeish Jr. and Robert A. Sherman about his knowledge of alleged abuse by Birmingham and other priests.

Lowell resident Gary Bergeron, 40, who says he was molested by Birmingham at St. Michael's in the 1970s, says the transcripts prove what he has been saying about all along: "I think that by his own words, he has known about the sexual molestation of children and he did nothing to stop it."

In an interview at The Sun last night, Bergeron reviewed the pages where McCormack, a top aide to former Boston Cardinal Bernard Law from 1984 to 1994, discussed Birmingham.

McCormack graduated from St. John's Seminary with Birmingham in 1960, served with him at St. James Parish in Salem for several years, and, his accusers say, let Birmingham travel from one church to the next throughout the state without warning parishioners that Birmingham had been repeatedly accused of sexual abuse.

McCormack testified he realized keeping the alleged abuses secret ran counter to the recommendation of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, which encouraged telling parishioners of the claims.

In the transcripts, McCormack said he first heard an allegation of sexual misconduct against Birmingham in 1970. A man who knew that McCormack and Birmingham were acquainted, told him that Birmingham molested his son while serving as a priest at St. James Church.

McCormack said he believed the man. "I had no doubts that the father, you know, learned from his son that he was sexually molested by Father Birmingham," McCormack said.

He also admits that he vaguely remembered a woman coming forward after that and telling him that Birmingham molested her son while he was a priest in Salem. He says he told the pastor at St. Ann's in Gloucester where Birmingham went on to become pastor in 1985 about the accusation made by the father, but does not recall doing anything further.

"I don't recall the conversation; I just recall going over there and said 'This is just unbelievable news' and I remember telling him and him shaking his head. I don't recall much more, but I remember him again, it was my sense was that he was just devastated by this."

Bergeron said: "The fact remains that if McCormack had done something, I wouldn't be sitting here talking."

Birmingham served in Lowell from 1971 to 1977, which is when the alleged molestation of Bergeron and his brother Edward took place. Edward has moved South out of the region, but has joined his brother's legal fight against the church.

Bergeron and his brother Edward are among 54 men at least 12 who say Birmingham abused them at St. Michael's who have joined in a lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Boston and a number of church officials, over their handling of the Birmingham matter. McCormack is named in the lawsuit, and will be deposed by the group's attorneys this month.

Bergeron would not say whether he believes McCormack should resign. However, he said, "I don't know how a man who has caused so much pain in so many lives could possibly think that he should be doing anything but apologizing to every single victim and every single parent every day for the rest of his life."

In the 1980s, McCormack served as secretary of ministerial personnel to the Archdiocese of Boston, making recommendations about pastors' assignments. McCormack admitted in the deposition that in 1985, when Birmingham was being considered for the position of pastor at a church in Gloucester, he did not mention to anyone the past allegations of abuse against him.

"The only step I remember taking is saying to Father Birmingham one time 'I know about some complaints about you in Salem,' and I said, 'I'm wondering, you know, how you're handling that.' And he said that 'I'm clean.'"

McCormack said he believed Birmingham. "I wasn't aware of the deviousness of persons who were involved in this type of behavior."

Birmingham was removed from his ministry in Gloucester after an allegation of sexual abuse, and after that, was assigned as parochial vicar at St. Bridget's in Lexington. He died in 1989.

Brian Tucker, McCormack's lawyer, said the bishop will continue to cooperate with lawyers in the lawsuits of alleged victims, but would not discuss the details of the depositions.

"The deposition transcripts do not provide a complete accounting of what Father McCormack and the Archdiocese of Boston did and did not do to respond to accusations of sexual misconduct of minors by priests there," Tucker said.

He also said that unlike in trials, "the questions posed in a deposition can be without any foundation whatsoever, can be based on hearsay or speculation, can be confusing, can be irrelevant to the matter at issue in the litigation, and can be argumentative."

Much of the questioning focused on how McCormack, who became bishop of the Diocese of Manchester in 1998, handled allegations against priests in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

Other highlights of the transcripts 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.

Bergeron no longer attends Mass. His only weekly meetings are with the men involved in the lawsuit, who have formed a group called Survivors of Father Birmingham.

When asked about his religion, he does not answer directly. "I believe in the religion of optimism," he said. "I believe in the guys in the group who have supported each other over the last nine months."

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