Boston Church Leaders Refused to Tell Parishioners of Abuse

By Pam Belluck
New York Times
January 8, 2003

OSTON — Despite strong urging by the archdiocesan official handling complaints from victims of sexual abuse by members of the clergy in the 1990's, leaders of the Boston archdiocese refused to inform parishioners that priests in their churches had been accused of child molestation, according to a deposition released today.

In the deposition, Bishop John B. McCormack, a former top official of the Boston archdiocese, acknowledged that he had been beseeched in 1994 by the archdiocese's victim outreach coordinator to announce in parish bulletins that a particular priest may have molested children. But Bishop McCormack, now the leader of the diocese of Manchester, N.H., said he and other senior church officials had rejected the idea in part because they were afraid public notification about sexual abuse by members of the clergy "would raise it to the level of a scandal."

Bishop McCormack also said he worried that a public announcement would discourage people from coming forward, but he could not explain why that would happen if the identities of the victims were not disclosed. The urging from the outreach coordinator, Sister Catherine E. Mulkerrin, began after the highly publicized molestation case involving the Rev. James Porter in Fall River, Mass.

The Porter case prompted the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to instruct dioceses to adopt policies for dealing with sexual abuse, including a provision to "deal as openly as possible with members of the community."

In a previous deposition, Cardinal Bernard F. Law testified that until the abuse scandal erupted last January, the archdiocese did not tell parishes about reports of such abuse.

The depositions, taken over five days from June to November, show that Bishop McCormack, who was responsible for handling problem priests from the mid-1980's to the mid-1990's, often took little action to prevent further abuse and that his response to complaints often seemed protective of the accused priest.

In several cases Bishop McCormack said he accepted the word of a priest that no sexual misconduct had occurred. In another case, involving the Rev. Joseph E. Birmingham, Bishop McCormack said that even though he believed reports in 1970 that the priest had committed sexual abuse, he did not try to block Father Birmingham's promotion to pastor in 1985. All he remembered is saying, "I wonder whether he ought to be a pastor," he testified.

Bishop McCormack, who was secretary for ministerial personnel in Boston from 1985 to 1994, became bishop in 1995 and was appointed to lead the New Hampshire diocese in 1998, has been under fire since the abuse scandal began. Since the resignation of Cardinal Law last month, some abuse victims in Boston have stepped up calls for Bishop McCormack to resign, too.

The bishop has apologized, stepped down as the chairman of the Bishops Conference's Committee on Sexual Abuse and agreed to meet with a group of men who say they were all abused by Father Birmingham.

Brian Tucker, a lawyer for Bishop McCormack, said in a statement today that "the deposition 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."

Mr. Tucker said that unlike testimony in trials, "the questions posed in a deposition can be without any foundation whatsoever, can be based on hearsay or speculation, can be confusing, can be irrelevant to the matter at issue in the litigation, and can be argumentative."

The depositions were part of a lawsuit against archdiocesan officials accusing them of negligence in the case of the Rev. Paul R. Shanley, who has been accused of molesting boys in Newton, Mass., in the 1980's.

While Cardinal Law, in statements and depositions after the scandal broke, frequently said the archdiocese's first priority was "the protection of children," Bishop McCormack did not make that assertion.

Roderick MacLeish Jr., a plaintiffs' lawyer, asked the bishop, "if there was a conflict between protecting the child and protecting the priest, you always put the child first, is that your testimony?"

Bishop McCormack said, "No, that's not my testimony," and added, "I would try to protect both."

In 1994, Bishop McCormack received a memorandum from Sister Mulkerrin in which she described herself as a "broken record" in urging that parish bulletins carry an announcement about accused priests. Bishop McCormack said she had made the suggestion before, but it was rejected because officials believed confidentiality was important for parishioners and priests.

Mr. MacLeish asked Bishop McCormack if he thought that publicity about an accused priest might have encouraged some people to come forward years earlier and get counseling sooner.

Bishop McCormack said he now agreed, and referring to the decision not to inform parishes, he added, "I would say that, I would, in hindsight, in retrospect, I think that from what I know today, it was not the best way of handling it."

Yet as recently as six months ago, Bishop McCormack was apparently still not fully informing parishioners about reports of abuse. In New Hampshire, he assigned the Rev. Ronald P. Cote to a church in Jaffrey, though Father Cote had acknowledged having a five-year sexual relationship with a teenage boy.

In the deposition released today, Bishop McCormack implied that he considered the Cote case less serious because "he did not do it with a parishioner" but rather an 18-year-old who did not belong to the church.

Bishop McCormack's deference toward priests in Boston was indicated in several cases addressed in the deposition. In 1990, for example, he met with two boys from a Haverhill, Mass., church who said they had been molested by the Rev. Ronald H. Paquin. One said Father Paquin had grabbed his genitals.

Bishop McCormack met with Father Paquin a few weeks later and then wrote a memorandum that raised concerns but seemed to accept the priest's version of events.

"I think there is a serious concern how he has expressed his care and concern for young boys," the memorandum said. "It seems to be from mixed motives. It seems that he does have a true concern for them, but also he has his own needs of affection which get expressed in unhealthy ways."

Asked in the deposition why he did not include the boys' description, Bishop McCormack said, "I would say that the reason I put it in this way is because that's probably how Father Paquin described it."

A year later, after Father Paquin had been removed from the Haverhill church and sent to a hospital for treatment, more complaints surfaced. A priest complained to Bishop McCormack that Father Paquin had been violating restrictions by returning to Haverhill and "romancing" a boy who was about 15 or 16 years old.

Bishop McCormack said his response was to speak with Father Paquin. "And I was hoping that by my speaking with him that he, you know, would stop what he was doing," he testified.

Last week, Father Paquin pleaded guilty to three counts of child rape involving an altar boy between 1990 and 1992 in Haverhill. He was sentenced to 12 to 15 years in prison.

In the Shanley case, Bishop McCormack handled a 1985 letter from a woman in Rochester, N.Y., who complained that Father Shanley said in a speech, "When adults have sex with children, the children seduced them."

In his deposition, the bishop said he believed Father Shanley's explanation that he had been misunderstood.


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