Until now, New Hampshire Bishop John McCormack has faced mounting evidence that he protected sexually abusive priests in relative peace. He even got a standing ovation in church last week, just two days after his embattled former boss, Cardinal Bernard Law, quit over the work they did together in the Boston archdiocese.
That is likely to change. With Law gone, the people who spent the last 10 months chipping away at his base in Boston have now set their sights on McCormack.
While McCormack has earned kudos here – even from his critics – for handling the scandal more openly and cooperatively than Law, the attention he is about to face will be intense. And it will be applied Boston-style, which is to say more abrasively and with more reporters listening than is common practice in New Hampshire.
“Here’s my prediction,” said Rick Webb, of Plymouth, Mass., who is already advertising a Jan. 19 protest outside St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Manchester on the Web site of a victims’ advocacy group. “From the time we are there, one month, two max, and (McCormack’s) gone.”
McCormack has been under scrutiny since February, when the clergy abuse scandal broke in Boston, for his role handling abuse allegations in the Boston archdiocese for Law from 1984-1994. Some here have called on McCormack to quit, but the pressure on him has been nothing like it may become.
The intensity began to increase Friday when five men suing McCormack in Massachusetts came to Manchester to detail their complaints for a local audience. Next month, Webb’s group plans a similar event, and both organizations said they’d be back.
In addition, the state’s local chapters of Voice of the Faithful, a Catholic laity group, will organize statewide in January with the support of the powerful Boston chapter, and a top coordinator said members will likely debate whether to ask McCormack to step down.
Additionally, the task force McCormack appointed to evaluate his sexual abuse policy intends to ask McCormack to respond to the parishioner concerns it has heard, including demands that he quit.
“It’s an education process,” said Mike Emerton of Boston. He said the Boston chapter of Voice of the Faithful negotiated with the archdiocese for nearly 10 months before calling on Law to step down. “All of these people (in the church) have resumes of doing wonderful things for people, but they’ve also looked the other way in regard to abusive priests. As more and more information comes out, people are slowly going to gain a greater understanding.”
Without a doubt, there will be ample information for the public to consider.
Boston attorney Eric MacLeish and his partners released thousands of pages of church files from their cases against McCormack and the Boston church last week and will release more in coming days. Among other things, last week’s files showed that McCormack defended a priest against accusations of abuse even as he was having the priest treated for molesting boys.
Next month, MacLeish will release McCormack’s deposition taken earlier this year, which will shed even more light on McCormack’s work in the archdiocese.
It was this drip, drip, drip of MacLeish’s files that forced Law to resign; the emerging contents concerned Boston priests and parishioners enough that members of both groups called on Law to quit.
Is MacLeish trying to replicate the process here?
“We are not in the business of telling the people of New Hampshire what to do,” he said last week. “The people of New Hampshire will make up their own minds. What I can guarantee is the flow of information will continue.”
And come February, there will be a flood of information opened on this side of the state line: The New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office will make available 10,000 pages of files on New Hampshire priests accused of misconduct reaching back to the 1940s.
The files are not expected to implicate McCormack directly because he’s been in New Hampshire only five years, but they won’t help either. Already some critics have wondered whether McCormack is the right person to lead the reform effort in New Hampshire.
“As stories and crimes become more evident, Catholics in New Hampshire just as they are in Massachusetts will be rightfully outraged,” said Bill Gately, New England’s co-coordinator for a clergy abuse survivors group.
The public has rarely heard from McCormack directly since the scandal thrust him under the spotlight. This spring, he apologized on WMUR-TV for his failings in Boston and asked for forgiveness. And last week, at a Mass in Manchester, he defended himself against critics, saying, “My past is my past; it affects my present and my future, but it does not define or limit them.”
But the bishop has largely ignored repeated interview requests from journalists, instead addressing the scandal quietly and almost exclusively through the church. By many accounts, his response has been in stark contrast to Law’s in Boston.
The one glaring exception erupted in June, when McCormack publicly explained his decision to assign a priest to a Jaffrey parish who had had sexual encounters with a male teenager.
Once McCormack concluded the boy was 18, he didn’t believe the sex constituted child sexual abuse. McCormack made the matter worse for himself when he explained his decision by saying, “It was not anticipated that (the priest’s indiscretions) would be made public.”
“When this whole thing started, the bishop said we had a couple of benchmarks,” said Pat McGee, spokesman for the Diocese of Manchester. “We wanted to be as non-confrontational with people who’ve been harmed as possible. And (McCormack) wanted (his assistants and lawyers) to put the pastoral aspects of helping people first.”
To that end, he held listening sessions for parishioners to voice their concerns, and in February he called his nearly 200 priests to Concord for a closed-door meeting to encourage them in the face of the scandal, McGee said.
The priests declined to discuss the scandal or McCormack’s role in it as they left, and most have continued to refuse to discuss the matter with reporters. By contrast, in Boston, Law alienated many of his priests, and nearly 50 signed a letter in December asking him to leave.
McCormack and his staff have also not faced public challenges from New Hampshire victims of clergy abuse, another contrast from Law’s experience in Boston.
The diocese has settled nearly 80 claims this year from people who claimed abuse by priests and other church staff. In settling, those victims aired their grievances in secrecy through attorneys, rather than publicly, before news reporters.
(However, there are nearly 60 clients represented by Manchester attorney Mark Abramson who will pursue their allegations publicly, at a trial, because they have been unable to reach a settlement with the diocese.)
In addition, McCormack attended an early meeting of the Penacook chapter of Voice of the Faithful and left it up to pastors to decide whether the groups could meet in parishes. He also assigned Sister Rosemary Crowley to attend those meetings as his liaison.
In Boston, Law banned some Voice of the Faithful groups from using church property and delayed for months before meeting with the members.
This month McCormack did something no other bishop has done: He admitted the church had harmed children by shuffling abusive priests between parishes. He also agreed to unprecedented state supervision of the church’s handling of future abuse allegations.
And just this week, McCormack finally agreed to hear out a group of alleged victims from Massachusetts who are suing McCormack for taking too lightly abuse allegations against a priest he supervised. McCormack’s assistant offered the meeting after the men announced they would air their complaints for reporters in Manchester, but church officials said that did not influence McCormack’s decision to meet the men.
McGee and other church officials hope McCormack’s response will count for something in the months ahead.
“(McCormack) sees his role in the traditional sense of shepherd,” McGee said. “If he can just listen. If people feel their voices are not being heard, that is a very frustrating experience.”
But it remains to be seen how much McCormack’s actions of the last several months can balance his 10 years in the Archdiocese of Boston. If Friday’s church discussion on a New Hampshire Public Radio call-in show is any indication, the scale may be forever tipped against him.
Of six callers, five called on McCormack to resign.
“I have been Catholic all my life and this is the greatest crisis in my time,” said one man. “These are crimes. Had these men not been wearing collars, they’d probably be behind bars right now. I think McCormack should resign.”