Twenty victims of a sexually abusive Massachusetts priest and more than 60 of their supporters confronted New Hampshire Bishop John McCormack last night and demanded repentance.
Participants said McCormack, who has acknowledged protecting the priest when he worked for the Archdiocese of Boston, appeared shaken during the emotional and sometimes angry meeting. And he asked the victims for their forgiveness, they said.
“He said he was deeply moved and shaken by the sad stories,” said Larry Sweeney, a victim of the late Father Joseph Birmingham. “He seemed visibly shaken, as he should be.”
Jamie Hogan, another of Birmingham’s victims, said McCormack took notes during the meeting but told the victims and their supporters he didn’t know what to say. And when victims asked him questions, he declined to answer them, saying there were too many questions.
“It was a very typical response for a man who had his head torn off in this meeting,” said Hogan.
“He stood up there like a kid caught by his parents being scolded,” added Gary Bergeron, also a victim.
Victims said McCormack insisted last night that he knew of no abuse by Birmingham in Salem, Mass., specifically, where they served together in the early 1970s. But eight participants reminded McCormack that they had reported Birmingham to him at that time.
“They were saying, ‘Shame on you, shame on you,’ ” said Hogan.
McCormack has met previously with a few of Birmingham’s victims, but this was the first time he faced them as a large group.
The two-hour meeting held at the Old Town Hall in Salem, Mass., was closed to the press. McCormack left the meeting through a back door, escorted by his assistant, Father Edward Arsenault, and said little. He was carrying a bouquet of flowers; one activist said they were given to him by a woman whose brother had committed suicide after being abused by Birmingham. She asked him to put the flowers on her brother’s grave.
“I learned a lot tonight,” McCormack said. “I learned what their lives are like because of what happened to them.”
Birmingham, who died in 1989, was accused of molesting more than 50 boys in parishes in Sudbury, Salem and Lowell, Mass., beginning in the 1960s.
McCormack is accused of ignoring complaints about Birmingham’s behavior as early as the 1960s, when he was a priest alongside Birmingham, and later when he was in charge of handling sexual abuse complaints for Cardinal Bernard Law in Boston.
Several men are suing McCormack for his work in the archdiocese handling sexual abuse complaints.
Church records show that when presented with complaints against Birmingham, McCormack repeatedly sided with the priest. The two knew each other well, and critics have speculated that the relationship clouded his judgment.
The two attended seminary together and lived in the same rectory in Salem, Mass., after they were ordained. The Boston Globe reported this week that McCormack traveled with Birmingham and three other priests to France and Italy in 1985, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their ordination.
McCormack has acknowledged mishandling some sexual abuse complaints against Birmingham. Specifically, he has admitted doing too little in 1970, when several parents warned him that Birmingham had molested children at his Salem parish.
McCormack was working for Catholic Charities at the time and had just earned a master’s degree in social work. McCormack has said he believed the allegations, but rather than report the abuse himself, he referred the parents to Birmingham’s pastor.
McCormack has also apologized for misleading a parent who contacted him with concerns about Birmingham in 1987. The father of a teenage boy wanted to know whether Birmingham was the same priest who’d been transferred for sexual abuse allegations. McCormack wrote the father back: “There is absolutely no factual basis to your concerns.” At the time, Birmingham had been moved eight times and had been accused of repeated molestation.
But Birmingham’s victims have said McCormack is culpable for more of their abuse than he’s acknowledged. Hogan, the first to file a lawsuit against McCormack, has said McCormack actually saw Birmingham leading Hogan to his bedroom and did nothing.
And Bernie McDaid of Massachusetts has said McCormack frequently saw Birmingham escorting young boys in his car and believes he should have suspected improper behavior. Church files show that church officials received their first complaints about McCormack in 1964, and McDaid said his own father reported Birmingham in 1969.
McCormack has been at the center of attention in New England and beyond in recent months – not only for his role in handling sexual abuse complaints against Boston-area priests in the 1980s and 1990s but also for his unprecedented settlement last month with the state of New Hampshire.
According to that settlement, the state agreed not to prosecute the Diocese of Manchester for child endangerment in exchange for the church’s release of thousands of pages of records documenting complaints against New Hampshire priests and the manner in which the church dealt with those complaints. Those files are due out in early March.
In the weeks before and since the settlement, some have called for McCormack to step down as bishop much as Cardinal Law left his post in Boston. Many of those calling for McCormack’s ouster have been activists and victims in Massachusetts including some at last night’s meeting. But a task force set up by the New Hampshire church to review its policies also heard testimony from numerous New Hampshire Catholics calling on McCormack to leave.
The bishop, however, has said he will not step down and has asked New Hampshire Catholics to judge him on his work in New Hampshire.
Following last night’s meeting, several of Birmingham’s victims held a press conference and described McCormack as repentant. But he also told them he needed time to absorb what he’d been told, they said.
“I told him his soul is not going to be saved until he accepts responsibility,” said Sweeney.
Paul Ciaramitaro, another of Birmingham’s victims, described the meeting as constructive. “There isn’t a Band Aid big enough to heal all of us, but tonight is the first step, he said.