Within hours of Cardinal Bernard F. Law’s resignation on Dec. 13, an alleged victim of a pedophile priest stepped to the podium at a news conference in Boston and announced a new target.
“Bishop McCormack, we’re coming after you,” said Gary Bergeron, 40, referring to New Hampshire Bishop John B. McCormack, who was not present. “For every document I’ve seen with the name Bernard Law, I’ve seen 100 with the name Bishop McCormack.”
Law is the 19th bishop worldwide, and the ninth in the United States, to step down since 1990 in the wake of sex abuse scandals. To many Roman Catholics, a natural question is: Who’s next?
Law’s resignation creates a “massive precedent” that has emboldened sexual abuse victims, their supporters, prosecutors and even priests to push for more resignations, said Philip Jenkins, a professor of religious studies at Penn State University who has written two books about the scandal.
“I think we’re going to see rising tension between the higher and lower clergy as more and more ordinary priests organize, not just in self-defense, but to challenge their bishops,” Jenkins said.
Pressure is mounting quickly on five of Law’s former deputies who have received subpoenas to testify before a Massachusetts grand jury. Chief among them is McCormack, 67, who handled sexual misconduct cases in the Boston archdiocese for a decade before being promoted to bishop of Manchester in 1998. On Dec. 10, he signed an agreement acknowledging that New Hampshire’s attorney general had sufficient evidence to convict his diocese of child endangerment.
But attention also is shifting to the powerful cardinals of Los Angeles and New York and to bishops in other cities, such as Phoenix and Toledo, who are up against aggressive prosecutors, hard-hitting local newspapers and restive clergy.
Some victim activists have misgivings about demanding the resignations of particular bishops. David Clohessy, executive director of the largest victims’ group, the 4,300-member Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said it is “a dangerous strategy” that “could delude people into thinking the problem is a few bad apples.”
Nonetheless, many victims in communities across the country have called on their local bishops to step down. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll, taken Dec. 12-15, also shows rising public dissatisfaction with the hierarchy’s response to the scandal, even among Catholics.
More than three-quarters of the 1,209 adults in the nationwide poll, and 69 percent of the Catholics, said they disapproved of the church’s handling of sexual abuse. Half of all the respondents — and more than a third of the Catholics — said the church “cannot be trusted” to handle the issue properly in the future.
Among the prelates under rising financial and legal pressure is Los Angeles’ Cardinal Roger Mahony, who faces an onslaught of civil lawsuits in 2003 because the California legislature has lifted the statute of limitations for one year.
Having spent nearly $200 million on a new cathedral, Mahony’s archdiocese now faces budget cuts. A grand jury has subpoenaed its records on 17 priests, and Mahony has been personally implicated in the case of the Rev. Michael Baker, who says he admitted to the archbishop in 1986 that he had molested several boys. Baker was sent for psychological treatment and then transferred to nine different parishes before leaving the priesthood two years ago.
Cardinal Edward Egan of New York also is under intense scrutiny for his past handling of abuse allegations. When he was bishop of Bridgeport, Conn., for example, Egan allegedly gave an accused priest $17,000 to settle bank debts and hire an attorney, the Hartford Courant has reported.
Prelates in smaller dioceses who are under pressure to step down include Bishop Thomas J. O’Brien of Phoenix. He faces a grand jury investigation by a prosecutor who has suggested that the bishop’s resignation might help to avert criminal charges against church leaders.
And in the diocese of Toledo, two priests have called for Bishop James R. Hoffman to step down, particularly in light of eight lawsuits accusing the Rev. Dennis Gray of molesting numerous boys before leaving the priesthood in 1987. Although victims say they told church officials about the abuse before 1987, Gray left the priesthood with a clean record and went on to work in the Toledo public schools until this year.
One of the priests urging Hoffman to retire, the Rev. Patrick Rohen, said he is “breaking the code of silence.”
“I will tell you, I fear retaliation,” Rohen said. “But somebody’s got to speak out on this. The whole problem is the world of secrecy and shame. In order to get beyond this denial, in places where cover-ups and incompetence have been demonstrated, those bishops should retire.”
The combination of events that preceded Law’s resignation — including a subpoena for the cardinal to testify before a grand jury, the threat of bankruptcy for the archdiocese and a letter from 58 priests calling for his departure — has not been duplicated elsewhere.
But some victim activists believe the main determinant of future resignations will be whether jurists across the county follow the example of Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney, who granted the Boston Globe’s request for the release of internal church documents on sexual misconduct.
“If in other states, the files are turned over the way they were in Boston, then yeah, there will be a domino effect,” said Mary Grant, head of the Los Angeles chapter of SNAP.
McCormack is on the hot seat partly because his name appears frequently in the Boston files. He served as Law’s secretary for ministerial personnel from 1984 to 1994 and is a defendant in many of the suits against the Boston archdiocese. But he has also run into trouble in Manchester, a diocese that includes all of New Hampshire’s 325,000 Catholics.
As recently as June, McCormack reassigned a priest to a parish even though the priest admitted having sex with a teenage boy in the 1980s and the diocese was arranging a secret financial settlement.
When the settlement was revealed, McCormack bluntly explained that he had decided to keep the Rev. Ronald P. Cote in ministry because “it was not anticipated that this would be public.” Parishioners were outraged, newspapers editorialized for McCormack to resign and protesters who picketed against Law said they would begin demonstrating at St. Joseph Cathedral in Manchester.
“If you got 500 Catholics from all over the state in a room and put the question to them, I bet 400 would vote for new leadership,” said Peter Flood, New Hampshire coordinator for Voice of the Faithful, a lay Catholic group that has called for structural changes in the church.
It has been a deep and sudden spiral for McCormack, who until recently was a national leader in the church’s response to the scandals. He served as chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse for two years before stepping down in April, following the disclosure that he failed to investigate complaints against the Rev. Paul R. Shanley in Boston even after Shanley publicly advocated men having sex with boys. Shanley was recently released from jail pending his trial on molestation charges.
McCormack has said he has no plans to resign as bishop. But he alluded to the precariousness of his position in a homily last Sunday, saying, “My past haunts my present and clouds my future with you in New Hampshire.”
McCormack’s defenders say he has dealt compassionately with both victims and perpetrators. Peter E. Hutchins, an attorney who has brought 75 sexual abuse lawsuits against the church, said the Manchester diocese under McCormack has admitted liability, waived a statute of limitations, shared information about its assets and refrained from attacking victims’ truthfulness.
“We don’t know all that’s in the files in Boston, but if you judge him by what he’s done in New Hampshire, he’s been a wonderful leader,” said Donna Sytek, former speaker of the state House of Representatives and head of a diocesan task force on sexual misconduct. “I truly believe he gets it. He may not have gotten it 15 years ago, but he really is committed to change.”
Some victims see McCormack differently: as a bishop who repeatedly accepted the word of accused priests over the complaints of victims and their families.
Bergeron, who warned on the day of Law’s resignation that the New Hampshire bishop would be next, held a news conference Friday with four other men who say they were molested in various Massachusetts parishes by the late Rev. Joseph E. Birmingham.
The men provided reporters with copies of church files showing McCormack was aware of complaints that Birmingham sexually abused children. But Birmingham nevertheless was sent to St. Ann’s Parish in Gloucester in 1985 and promoted to pastor the following year.
In an April 1987 letter, McCormack reassured one parishioner who had heard Birmingham had molested boys in another parish and was worried he might pose a threat to her son, an altar boy. “I contacted Father Birmingham and asked him specifically about the matter you expressed in your letter. He assured me there is absolutely no factual basis to your concern regarding your son and him,” McCormack wrote. A spokesman said the bishop was not available for comment but confirmed that McCormack had agreed to meet with the men after Christmas.
Birmingham “was having a feast on young boys,” one of the alleged victims, Larry Sweeney, told reporters. “The caterers were McCormack and other bishops who knew about him and what he was doing.”
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