Changed Church, Times Await City's New Bishop

By Adam Bowles
Norwich Bulletin [Norwich CT]
March 12, 2003

NORWICH -- Monsignor Michael Richard Cote, named the new bishop of the Norwich Diocese Tuesday, swallowed hard, then started fielding the tough questions at a news conference at the Cathedral of St. Patrick.

How would he jumpstart fund-raising efforts? How would he reach out to lay people disenfranchised from the church because of sex scandals? What would he do if a priest in the diocese were accused of sexual abuse?

When his predecessor, the Most Rev. Daniel A. Hart, a taller man with a deeper voice, took over as bishop in 1995, he faced no such controversies. But these are different times. Last year, a clergy sex scandal sent the Roman Catholic Church in America reeling.

Against this sober backdrop, Cote, 53, a diminutive man with glasses, spoke of the challenges he faces and the manner in which he plans to lead: "laid-back, but not lazy." And he touted his experience handling thorny issues.

During his nearly eight years as auxiliary bishop of Portland, Maine, he removed three priests because of sexual misconduct. He assumed this responsibility because the bishop was sick at the time. After lengthy testing and rehabilitation, two of the priests were returned to the ministry once their conduct had been revealed to the parishes and the parishes decided to accept them.

"I learned we need to be up front about what we do in regard to the community and to uphold the charter to protect our children," said Cote, who just a few minutes earlier said he greatly admired Hart, calling him a "holy man."

"You have to respect the victim and the accused," he said. "Both have rights."

Already this year, Hart, whose resignation was accepted by Pope John Paul II Tuesday, was named in eight new sex-abuse lawsuits for negligent supervision. Hart reached mandatory retirement age of 75 on Aug. 24, 2002, submitting his request to retire to the pope at that time.

When asked what advice he could offer Cote in matters of dealing with accused priests and victims, Hart, in his customary deliberate style, said, "I suppose I do." People roared in laughter as he ran his fingers through his crop of gray hair.

"I think there's always the possibility of doing things better," Hart said. "I am confident that Bishop Cote will build on what has been accomplished so far. His abilities and talents are just what the diocese needs at this time."

Hart tried a couple of times to quiet the crowd at the start of the news conference before introducing Cote. "We are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Diocese of Norwich, and our local church has been blessed with a special gift from the Holy Father," he said, giving way to Cote as dozens of clergy, nuns and parishioners applauded the new arrival.

Cote, who will become the fifth Norwich bishop when he is installed at the Cathedral on May 14, said he looked forward to his new job with the "joy of a pastor."

Not all the talk was serious. The Baby Boomer clergyman said he enjoys skiing in the winter and golf and sea kayaking in the summer.

Until the formal installation, an interim administrator will oversee the transition.

Hart will leave his position immediately. He said he is happy to go.

Howard B. Bennett, superintendent of schools in the Norwich Diocese, said he would miss Hart. The two worked closely, with Bennett serving Hart as a top school adviser. "We never had a cross word," Bennett said. "He makes you feel good about yourself."

Sister Beatrice Theroux of Windham asked Cote if he would be attentive to an evangelical movement she is helping to organize that would create a secular branch of her order, allowing the nuns to live outside the church. Cote agreed to pay her attention.

"He seems to be a man who is going to listen before he makes decisions," Theroux said after the news conference. "I don't think he's gung-ho about bringing change. I think that's wise, especially now."

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