Church Task Force Reminds Bishop of Resignation Calls

By J.M. Hirsch
Associated Press, carried in Boston Globe [Manchester NH]
January 17, 2003

MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) A policy study group reminded Bishop John B. McCormack on Friday that many New Hampshire Catholics think he should step down.

''The most common sentiment expressed on the part of those speaking at listening sessions was that Bishop McCormack should resign,'' the 12-member group said as it recommended changes to church policies to prevent and punish sexual abuse by church personnel.

''There was considerable concern that Bishop McCormack does not have the moral authority to implement the revised policy on sexual misconduct nor to lead the church forward in the healing process,'' it said.

In a prepared statement, McCormack praised the group's work but said nothing about resigning. He has rejected previous calls that he resign.

Yet in a private meeting Friday with an alleged victim of priest abuse, McCormack indicated that day could come.

Gary Bergeron, an alleged victim of the late Rev. Joseph Birmingham, met with McCormack for 1 hours. He said McCormack told him he plans to remain bishop so long as he is able to help victims heal and lead the church effectively.

''He said right now he believes he can do that, however if the time came when it was better for the church that he would make a decision to go,'' Bergeron said in a telephone interview.

McCormack served with Birmingham at St. James parish in Salem, Mass., in the mid-1960s.

The mainly lay Diocesan Task Force on Sexual Misconduct Policy, appointed by McCormack last fall, took no position on whether he should resign.

James Farrell of Somersworth, a prominent McCormack critic, said it is a shame task force members ''did not have the courage to put their collective credibility behind such an important recommendation.''

''A report that fails to recommend consequences for bishops who cover up abuse, and who facilitate further abuse, is inconsistent with justice,'' the University of New Hampshire professor said in an e-mailed commentary.

The task force was supposed to limit its 21-page report to policy recommendations, but it devoted the final 2 pages to criticism it heard at public meetings last fall.

''We've heard them so often we couldn't let them go and not include them in the report,'' Chairwoman Donna Sytek said of the resignation calls. ''I don't think that will come as a surprise to him.''

The task force recommended that alleged violations of the abuse-prevention policy be reported to the bishop, and alleged violations by the bishop be reported to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Vatican.

''This is the only mechanism we have,'' said Sytek, a former speaker of the New Hampshire House. ''We're going to report you to your boss. For the bishop, the boss is the pope.''

Farrell faulted the task force for not recommending that bishops be held accountable for past misconduct, and said reporting future misconduct to the bishops' conference would do little.

''That body, by its own unwillingness to address accountability for members of the hierarchy, has already sacrificed its own credibility on this matter,'' he said.

The report's recommendations centered on preventing abuse, showing respect and compassion to alleged victims, and respecting the rights of accused priests.

''We believe that the people of God the Christian faithful and everyone in our society will be better served if the diocese adopts a policy that meets these objectives and is broader in scope than what is required under our civil laws,'' it said.

The report comes against a backdrop of a nationwide scandal over molesting priests that erupted in Boston a year ago. Cardinal Bernard Law resigned after enduring months of lawsuits and criticism that he turned a blind eye toward molestation and kept giving accused priests new assignments.

McCormack was a top aide to Law from 1984 to 1994 and is named in lawsuits seeking to hold the archdiocese responsible for its inadequate response. Both Law and McCormack have acknowledged making errors.

McCormack is not bound by the recommendations, and some of what will be in the diocese's revised sexual abuse policy is beyond his control.

In December, McCormack avoided an unprecedented criminal indictment of the diocese by agreeing to a settlement with the state attorney general's office.

As part of the settlement, McCormack admitted the church failed to protect children from sexual abuse by priests. He agreed to annual audits of the diocese by prosecutors for five years, and that priests and other church employees immediately report suspected molestation even if the victim is no longer a minor.


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