The Rev. John B. McCormack had been a priest for 10 years in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston when a parent he knew well from his first parish told him a fellow priest sexually abused his son.
Reinforcing his belief in his former parishioner’s 1970 accusation against the Rev. Joseph E. Birmingham was a disturbing squib of graffiti McCormack saw scrawled on a local family’s fence.
Damn Father Birmingham, someone scratched out for all the world to see, McCormack, now bishop of Manchester, said in deposition transcripts released this week.
McCormack, who was working at the nearby Catholic Charities office, told the boy’s father to tell the pastor of the Salem, Mass., parish where McCormack and Birmingham both served in the 1960s. McCormack said he did the same.
But the bishop never took the extra step of alerting the pastor of a Lowell, Mass., parish where Birmingham was transferred in 1970 after many parents complained he was sexually abusing children in Salem.
The pastor would take responsibility for doing something about this, and in those days that’s how you handled it. I wouldn’t think of anything about following through any other way, McCormack said.
Nor did he go to the house with the graffiti to find out why it was there, saying he assumed some kid is upset with Father Birmingham.
Fifteen years later, McCormack was sitting on Cardinal Bernard F. Law’s cabinet as secretary for ministerial personnel when Birmingham came up for appointment as pastor of St. Ann Parish in Gloucester.
Even though McCormack said he believed the parent’s 1970 allegation against Birmingham and had a vague memory of a Salem mother’s complaint about the priest, McCormack said he made no effort to ensure that information was known to other church officials. He said he assumed that information would be in the priest’s confidential file.
McCormack said the only step he took was to confront Birmingham about the past allegations in Salem.
And he said that I’m clean, McCormack said.
He said he believed Birmingham, who died in 1989, because I considered him to be an honest person at the time I wasn’t aware of the deviousness of persons who are involved in this type of behavior.
For the 54 men from four Massachusetts parishes who have filed suit alleging Birmingham abused them, this isn’t good enough.
Many blame McCormack for their alleged abuse, saying if he had acted in 1970 or even earlier when Birmingham and McCormack lived in the Salem rectory others would not have suffered.
In five days of sworn testimony from June 3 to Nov. 22 last year, plaintiffs attorneys pointedly questioned McCormack about why he didn’t take the extra step, ask the begged question or double-check a cleric’s file to ensure the priest was fit for ministry.
It wasn’t just Birmingham whose word McCormack took at face value.
In 1991, more than a year after the Rev. Ronald H. Paquin was removed from ministry in Haverhill, Mass., for molesting two boys, a priest told McCormack that Paquin was back in Haverhill romancing a teenager who came from a broken home.
McCormack said he confronted Paquin, who denied the allegation.
He assured me there was no sexual contact, that this was a boy he had known that he was trying to be helpful to, and so I took him at his word, I did, and I set limits on him, the bishop testified.
McCormack also said he didn’t report the matter to the Massachusetts Department of Social Services, but later took (Paquin) out completely because we knew that he could not be managed well on his own.
Paquin pleaded guilty on Dec. 31 in Massachusetts to three counts of child rape and was sentenced to up to 15 years in prison. He remains the subject of at least 28 civil lawsuits brought by his alleged victims, his attorney said in a published report.
McCormack’s legal counsel said the bishop would not comment on his deposition testimony, but said such 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.
Last June, McCormack said he approved the transfer of the Rev. Roland P. Cote to be pastor of a Jaffrey, N.H., church without instructing him to inform his parishioners that he had a sexual relationship with a teenager in the 1980s.
Prosecutors and diocesan officials said they concluded the youth was over the age of consent, which is 16, when he met Cote. And McCormack said Cote did not pose a threat to children.
But attorney Roderick MacLeish asked McCormack to put himself in the position of someone in the parish.
Can you understand that knowing that (Cote) admitted engaging in a sexual act with a 17- or 19-year-old young person would be important for that parishioner to hear, as a mother of an adolescent boy, can you understand that, Bishop? MacLeish asked.
McCormack stressed Cote’s past sexual relationship was not with a parishioner.
It makes a big difference that a person uses his office to take advantage of a parishioner is very different from a person, who on his day off, involved in sexual misconduct with a person that he picked up in an automobile, the bishop said.
Cote admitted to having several sexual encounters with a teenager in the 1980s at a Newport, N.H., summer camp he co-owned with the Rev. Robert E. Gorski and Monsignor Paul L. Bouchard, McCormack said. Cote paid for the sex.
McCormack said Gorski and Bouchard were not present when the sex occurred.
McCormack also said the Boston Archdiocese did not completely adopt the fifth point of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops 1992 policy that called on dioceses to deal as openly as possible with members of the community when a priest faces a credible accusation of sexual misconduct.
Our practice was to handle matters confidentially and not to raise it to the point where it would become so public thatat that time we saw this as a scandal and that it would raise it to the level of a scandal, he testified.
At that time in the mid-1990s, McCormack said, he was dealing with about 20 priests with credible sexual abuse allegations against them.
His aide, Sister Catherine Mulkerrin, said her persistent urgings to get McCormack to use parish bulletins to alert parishioners where these priests had served made her feel like a broken record.
McCormack said the decision to not notify parishioners was not made by him alone, but was a matter of discussion among some of us who met weekly. The group included Mulkerrin, McCormack, Wilson D. Rogers Jr., the Boston Archdiocese’s chief legal counsel, and two archdiocesan priests.
Even though he served as Law’s secretary for ministerial personnel from 1984 to 1994, McCormack said he did not have free access to the archdiocese’s confidential files, which he said he was told contained all complaints against priests.
McCormack said he would request a specific file from the vicar for administration. It was only when he became Law’s delegate for sexual misconduct in late 1992 that he said he could access the confidential files.
McCormack said he never saw the archdiocese’s secret archives, which were stored in a large, walk-in safe in the chancery.
MacLeish asked if McCormack burned any documents at the Cape Neddick, Maine, house he co-owns with two priests when he was there in June. He said he burned no documents since last January.