While a top aide to Cardinal Bernard Law, Bishop John McCormack was quick to suspend some priests accused of sexual abuse but appeared to wait years in other cases, according to church records released yesterday.
In one case, McCormack took just months to investigate and suspend from ministry a Massachusetts priest accused of molesting several girls, the records indicate.
But in other cases, McCormack apparently ignored allegations dating back more than a decade, including one priest initially accused of misconduct in 1984 but not removed from ministry until 1993.
McCormack, who became bishop of New Hampshire in 1998, was director of ministerial personnel in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston from 1984 to 1994. For several of those years, he handled sexual abuse complaints involving priests.
Yesterday, personnel files on eight priests were made public after a judge ordered the church to turn them over to lawyers representing alleged victims of clergy abuse.
Archdiocese spokeswoman Donna Morrissey said the documents contain horrible allegations and the church wants to help any victims. None of the priests could be reached, and the archdiocese did not have telephone numbers for them.
McCormack, who was involved in all eight cases, has repeatedly been accused of disregarding complaints against priests while coddling them and shuffling them from parish to parish.
Patrick McGee, McCormack’s spokesman, would not comment yesterday, as the bishop had not read the documents. McCormack has said previously that he often did not know about allegations against priests because of poor record keeping.
Roderick MacLeish, the lawyer who released the records, said the files released yesterday indicate a pattern of ignoring complaints and failing to go back and warn parishioners about predatory priests.
“Bishop McCormack had a wealth of information available to him,” MacLeish said. “There was an obligation given the nature of the relationship between the church and its parishioners to go back.”
Below is a summary of most of the personnel files released yesterday:
In the case of the Rev. Robert Meffan, McCormack appears to have acted quickly on allegations the priest sexually assaulted young girls training to become nuns, according to church records.
The first allegation against Meffan was made in January 1993. By March, McCormack had ordered a psychological assessment of him, and by July he had suspended him from active ministry.
“My concern about putting him back into ministry is that up to this point he has never fully denied the allegations nor does he fully admit them,” McCormack wrote to a church associate in July 1993.
McCormack’s replacement notified Meffan that he’d been granted retirement but that he was still prohibited from active ministry. Meffan wrote back to church officials, saying he was sure he’d one day understand why God had allowed allegations to come against him.
Meffan wrote, “So, in perfect peace and happiness, I live a prisoner of love, patiently waiting for eternity where hidden things will be revealed and the truth shall set me free.”
Yet in the case of the Rev. Robert Morrissette, who according to the records admitted in 1984 that he “made advances” on a boy, church officials initially offered the priest counseling. A doctor hired by the archdiocese evaluated Morrissette at the time and concluded he could be returned to ministry. In an unsigned letter from November 1984, church officials recommended Morrissette be transferred to a new parish, but nothing in the file indicates they alerted people there of the priest’s admissions.
When the file picks up again in 1993, the list of allegations against Morrissette had grown to include a complaint that he had a male college student spend the night at the rectory and another from a pastor who said Morrissette had begun a relationship with a gay man.
Not until August 1993 did McCormack advise that Morrissette be suspended from active ministry. Law placed the priest on sick leave the following month.
The church continued to pay Morrisettee’s medical bills, but the priest found work outside the church, first at a candle factory and then at a Boston hotel. His file ends with a memo from McCormack’s replacement telling him that his leave of absence has ended. It was unclear yesterday how the church resolved his case.
W. James Nyhan
McCormack learned in 1994, as he was leaving his job in Boston, that the Rev. W. James Nyhan stood accused of sexual misconduct with a boy during a brief assignment to a South Carolina parish.
McCormack agreed to pay the boy’s medical bills but concluded the boy’s vague allegation provided too little detail to restrict Nyhan’s ministry.
After McCormack left Boston, his replacements eventually made Nyhan a chaplain at a high school in Cambridge, Mass. This year, church officials received two additional allegations against Nyhan, one dating back to 1985, the other to the mid-1970s.
There is no indication in the files released yesterday how the church has responded.
In 1992, McCormack was told in a memo from Sister Catherine Mulkerrin that the Rev. Thomas Forry had been accused of making sexual advances against the son of a woman with whom the priest had an 11-year affair.
A doctor told church officials that Forry had been living a double life.
There was a second allegation that year from a woman who said Forry sexually assaulted her when she went to him for counseling about an abortion she’d had. And these had come after Forry admitted to beating up a housekeeper, even tearing her hair out.
Yet, seven years later, Forry still was in ministry, allowed to work with only military personnel. A second church doctor had concluded the allegations were not true, despite Forry’s decision to sign a $30,000 settlement with his male accuser.
In 1995, the church’s review board accepted the doctor’s conclusion and lifted the restrictions. The file memo says there was not conclusive evidence that Forry had had sex with a minor.
In 1999, Law reassigned Forry from being a prison chaplain to being a roaming, fill-in priest to cover vacations by priests. The church revoked that assignment after a parishioner recognized Forry as the priest one of her relatives had complained about. He currently is unassigned.
But in the case of former priest Robert Towner, who left the church in 1990 to marry and have children, McCormack took a hard line.
Allegations dating back to 1967 were made against Towner in 1992 and 1993, but McCormack told him the archdiocese would not give him any financial help for his legal bills, saying such money was reserved for priests.
At the same time, one victim’s mother complained that McCormack and Mulkerrin had done nothing about her complaint against Towner, according to the records.
In a handwritten note, McCormack said the allegation was wrong and that he had offered the woman counseling for her son, but she “did not pick up on it.”
In the case of former priest Robert Burns, who now lives in Concord, the archdiocese acknowledged in a 1996 news release it knew about “the former Father Burns’ problem prior to his stay in this area.”
Burns had moved to Boston from Ohio in 1982 to purse a theology degree at Boston College. He asked for permission to minister in Massachusetts and was assigned to a parish in Jamaica Plain.
“At that time we did not have a complete grasp of all the implications of the pathology of sexual abuse,” the news release reads. It goes on to say Burns was removed from ministry once allegations were made against him in Massachusetts.
One allegation was made in 1991, around the time Burns left the priesthood. In an April 1991 memo summarizing his conversation with the alleged victim’s parents, McCormack said he dissuaded them from seeking a financial settlement. He encouraged them instead to help their son learn to forgive.
“I added that I didn’t think compensation would be helpful to their son,” McCormack wrote. “It is not what he needs. They seemed to agree.”
In an unrelated case, Burns in 1996 pleaded guilty to molesting an 11-year-old boy in Salem. He was released in 1999. According to court records, he has admitted molesting more than 40 boys.
In the case of the Rev. Richard Buntel, McCormack knew in 1994 that the priest had admitted to having sex and using cocaine and marijuana with boys while serving in Malden, Mass., from 1978 to 1983.
He responded by ordering Buntel to undergo an assessment and telling him a future in ministry was impossible for at least four to five years. “I told Buntel the archdiocese wants to help him while, at the same time, it maintains its responsibility to the people he serves and the wider community,” McCormack wrote in a file memo.
Buntel was in and out of treatment for the following two years. In 1996, McCormack’s replacement helped Buntel find a non-ministerial job with a Lowell, Mass., parish. As of 1999, when Buntel’s file ends, the priest was doing administrative work for another Massachusetts parish.