Debating the Degree of Abuse

By Sean Murphy
Foster's Sunday Citizen [New Hampshire]
Downloaded March 2, 2003

Local experts defend a distinction between abuse of a parishioner and abuse of a non-parishioner made by New Hampshire's top Catholic, but they don't believe it makes abuse any less heinous.

The Most Rev. John B. McCormack, bishop of Manchester, has been the subject of greater scrutiny since the resignation of the Boston Archdiocese's Cardinal Bernard Law.

Law stepped down amid pressure from the public in the wake of the growing sex abuse scandal in the church, and allegations that he did nothing to stop abusive priests in the archdiocese.

Without Law, critics are setting their sights on McCormack, who was a top-ranking church official under Law in the 1980s and early 1990s, and fielded many of the complaints of abuse critics charge the church ignored.

According to transcripts of depositions in sexual abuse lawsuits in Boston released in January, McCormack is quoted as saying, at one point, "You know, one is an activity where you have a trusted relationship with a parishioner. The other is an activity where you're away from the parish and you're off on your own."

The quote comes from discussions about the Rev. Roland Cote's relationship with a youth while he was assigned to St. Patrick's Church in Newport during the 1980s.

The Rev. Christopher Coyne, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston, said parishioners are typically defined as people who live in the area of a particular church and are registered in some way with the parish, or are communicants.

McCormack's distinction is legitimate, he said, because of the relationship between a priest and a parishioner.

"When you're a parish priest and you're close to people and they know you ... that is different, to a degree," Coyne said.

The distinction, he said, is similar to that between a person abusing a family member as opposed to a stranger.

Coyne stressed, however, that anything abusive is sinful and regarded as wrong by the church.

"It's a matter of degree," he said, referring to McCormack's distinction, "but abuse is abuse."

Ann R. Riggs, an assistant professor of religious studies at Rivier College in Nashua, said she also understands the distinctions the church makes, but doesn't defend the actions.

In addition, she said the distinction only holds water when talking about clergy having sex with adults, as opposed to minors.

Riggs warned critics of McCormack's comments to take them in proper context. By the time McCormack said what he said, Riggs noted, he was acting under the assumption that the victim was not a minor.

In that context, Riggs said the argument is whether a priest having sex with an adult parishioner is the same as a priest having sex with an adult from outside the church. Riggs said these two situations are not the same and, like McCormack noted, it is different and more along the lines of abuse when the adult in question is a parishioner.

"That is always abusive, because of the power structure in the relationship," she said.

Riggs said a priest is someone a parishioner would seek out for spiritual guidance, instruction, and direction, whereas a person from outside the church has no such interests.

Riggs was quick to add, however, that sexual contact between a priest and a minor is "abusive and disgusting" no matter who the minor is, and strongly emphasized that she does not consider McCormack's comments a rationale for pedophilia.

Michelle Dillon, associate professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire, said she saw the same distinction, but did not believe it was strong enough to declare one form abuse and another form not to be.

"Morally, they're on equal footing," she said of parishioners and non-parishioners.

Regarding McCormack's specific comments, she said "I thought what he said was hairsplitting."

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