New Catholic Lay Group Wants Bishops to Quit

By Albert McKeon
The Telegraph [Manchester NH]
April 1, 2003

MANCHESTER - A newly formed Catholic lay group plans to seek the support of parishioners throughout the state in demanding the resignations of Bishops John McCormack and Francis Christian.

Intending to use a self-described grass-roots initiative, the 15 founding members of New Hampshire Catholics for Moral Leadership hope to build a platform strong enough to oust the two bishops. They will try to use the Internet and some old-fashioned shoe leather to reach deep into the pews.

"We're looking for the silent majority to come forward," member Bob Morton said at a press conference Monday. "We'd like to get folks to speak up."

Group members consider the bishops morally unfit and complicit in their handling of abusive clergy. They think many New Hampshire Catholics hold the same view, and will voice that opinion if given the proper vehicle for expression.

Several Moral Leadership members belong to other church lay groups, and have sought McCormack's resignation in the past, mostly as individuals.

The release last month of church documents detailing how the Diocese of Manchester failed to remove abusive priests from ministry prompted the forming of Moral Leadership, several members said.

In releasing those documents and by securing McCormack's signature on a criminal plea deal, the attorney general's office contends the diocese endangered children by placing the reputation of the church over the complaints of victims. Further, the state claims Christian, the diocesan auxiliary bishop, misled victims and prosecutors on abusive priests.

Moral Leadership points to those statements and McCormack's role as an aide to Cardinal Bernard Law in Boston as proof that the two bishops deceived victims, prosecutors and Catholics.

"In reply to our cries and gasps of astonishment, we hear hollow words uttered by deceitful men, who say just the right things only after being caught," member James Farrell read from a declaration the group will ask Catholics to sign.

"The people of our diocese cry out for a moral leadership, yet the occupants of the (diocesan chancery), promising a recent conversion, cling stubbornly to power."

McCormack has held firm that he intends to remain as bishop. The diocese and its supporters point to how he has taken progressive steps to protect children over the past year, including creating a policy that calls for the immediate removal from ministry of a priest facing a credible abuse allegation.

The Rev. Edward Arsenault, the diocesan chancellor, issued a written statement late Monday reiterating that McCormack and Christian will continue in their roles.

"Quick solutions are rarely lasting solutions," Arsenault said. "Ideas like 'leaders should go and all will be right' are not of the church or for the church. Our family of faith is rooted in a commitment to acknowledge our faults, ask for forgiveness, and resolve to learn from our mistakes."

Christian, after the release of the documents last month, said he never intentionally tried to mislead the state when it sought his opinion before the sentencing of the Rev. Roger Fortier, who was convicted on 16 counts of sexual assault. Christian in 1998 told a Strafford County probation officer he was unaware of Fortier's "sexual problems with youth," when church documents show he had knowledge.

Ten of Moral Leadership's 15 founders outlined their intentions Monday at the press conference at the Manchester Public Library. They claim many Catholics in New Hampshire share their thoughts on the two bishops, but have not had a forum to make their views known.

So the group will use an Internet site and will reach parishioners face-to-face to accumulate a record of what it thinks is strong dissent for McCormack and Christian.

This weekend, members will seek support from parishioners at three different churches. If the group can enlist volunteers and the effort fares well, it will focus on more churches in the future, Farrell said.

The Internet will clearly serve as the group's best tool. The group's Web site will display the declaration calling for the bishops' jobs. Catholics who support the initiative will also be asked to pass the message along and volunteer.

Morton acknowledged many Catholics have grown tired of publicity on the crisis, and other members said they recognize many Catholics in New Hampshire have remained silent.

Moral Leadership members claim dissent for the two bishops is strong - strong enough to force them out. As an example, they pointed to a University of New Hampshire-WMUR poll taken in February of 475 people - including 190 Catholics - that had 73 percent of the respondents favoring McCormack's resignation.

"People who understand the abuse have come forward" to seek change, said member Ed Kirby, a Nashua resident and parishioner of St. John Neumann Church in Merrimack. "There is another faction that does not realize the extent of the abuse. They're disturbed by McCormack, but it hasn't touched them."

To that end, Moral Leadership members want Catholics to read as many of the 9,000 pages of church documents to formulate an opinion of diocesan leadership. The documents, though, focus mostly on diocesan decisions made before McCormack became bishop in 1998.

Moral Leadership member Anne Coughlin said some Catholics may think the group has a broad agenda. But she said the group has a narrow focus: removing the two bishops.

Kirby said he hoped the group's forum would attract priests who have "the courage" to also seek change in the diocese.

Farrell, after saying he hoped potential new leaders would come with clean hands, said there is no guarantee anyone in the church could fulfill that goal.

"But it is hard to find a bishop more culpable than McCormack," he said. "I'm willing to take my chances we'll get someone better than McCormack."

Albert McKeon can be reached at 249-3339

Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.