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Spotlight Report

N.H. bishop reportedly coached priest on abuse reply

By Stephen Kurkjian, Globe Staff, 10/30/2002


New Hampshire Bishop John B. McCormack (Globe Staff Photo / John Bohn)
JAFFREY, N.H. - Before becoming bishop of the Manchester Diocese, John B. McCormack spent much of the 1980s and 1990s as the aide to Cardinal Bernard F. Law who dealt with - and according to records, often coddled - priests accused of molesting children.

In April, a flood tide of documents showed how McCormack threw a protective blanket over the Rev. Paul R. Shanley when others complained about Shanley's public support for men having sex with boys. Two weeks after the Shanley disclosures, McCormack resigned as chairman of a US bishops' committee on sexual abuse.

In June, McCormack decided it was appropriate to reassign the Rev. Ronald P. Cote, 57, to St. Patrick's Church here, even though Cote had admitted to McCormack that he'd had sex with a teenage boy and that the diocese was arranging a secret and pricey settlement of a legal claim against the priest.

After Cote's secret was disclosed by a local newspaper in September, McCormack stated in a sworn deposition that has yet to be made public that he instructed Cote in May to tell parishioners that he had been subject to an investigation that concluded he had done nothing wrong, but to say nothing else, according to a parent of a victim of Shanley present at the deposition.

But when Cote said nothing at all, McCormack also kept his public silence. What's more, according to his Sept. 27 deposition, McCormack reasoned that the assignment was justified because the legal settlement stipulated that the youth was 18 when the sexual relations began. In fact, he might have been as young as 16 - which would have qualified as sexual abuse of a minor under church rules.

To many of New Hampshire's 325,000 Catholics, the damage to McCormack, from his assignments in Boston and in Manchester, has been serious. And the disclosures from his deposition are likely to further erode McCormack's credibility. Even before the Cote disclosures, the state's largest newspaper, the Union Leader of Manchester, had called for McCormack to resign.

St. Patrick's parishioners have also denounced their bishop and demanded his resignation, with many calling McCormack a liar for withholding details about Cote's past. Cote remains at the parish, but Mass attendance at the century-old, stone church has dropped by at least a third.

To some, McCormack's recent behavior suggests that he remains overly protective of abusive priests.

''Sadly for the people of the Diocese of Manchester, Bishop McCormack brought his same regrettable lessons he learned about dealing with sexual abuse in Boston to New Hampshire,'' said the Rev. Thomas P. Doyle, who has been a strong advocate for changing the church's sexual abuse policies, and is assisting in a class-action lawsuit on behalf of 50 alleged New Hampshire victims.

When Cote's background became known last month, it touched off an angry confrontation with McCormack at St. Patrick's, as parishioners accused the state's bishop of hiding the details of Cote's past to facilitate the transfer.

McCormack denied the charge and rejected parishioners' calls for his resignation, saying, ''I have no intention of resigning. I am here to serve.''

During the deposition last month, McCormack made several assertions that left the impression that both he and Cote had intended to provide adequate information about Cote's past to parishioners when he was transferred to St. Patrick's.

Among those who attended the closed-door deposition was Rodney Ford, a Boston College police officer whose son was allegedly raped by Shanley. Ford provided the Globe a detailed account of McCormack's testimony.

According to Ford's recollection, McCormack said he sent Cote to St. Patrick's with instructions to inform parishioners that he had been investigated but that the probe had found no wrongdoing. Cote was told he did not need to provide any specifics, including any disclosure of his five-year relationship with the youth - unless he was specifically asked.

The bishop also testified that Cote agreed before the assignment to undergo psychological testing. But when Roderick MacLeish Jr., a Boston attorney representing Shanley victims, pressed McCormack for the results of the examination, McCormack said it had not been completed.

Neither Cote nor McCormack would agree to be interviewed.

According to Ford, McCormack testified that church law did not prevent him from reassigning Cote, because the diocese's review of the case had determined the youth was 18 when the affair began. While McCormack stressed that such a sexual encounter is a pastoral offense, he asserted that canon law allows priests to be forgiven and to continue as priests as long as the sexual partner was 18 years or older.

Yet the age of Cote's former sexual partner when the relationship began has not been precisely determined, according to Marc Hathaway, prosecutor for Sullivan County, where the sexual relationship occurred.

Hathaway said in an interview that the youth - who is now 36 - was uncertain when he first had sex with Cote, but the earliest it could have been was 1983, when he was 16. But as part of the settlement the man received, he had to stipulate that the sexual relationship did not start until he was 18. The amount of the settlement is not known.

Cote arrived in Jaffrey in June. Although McCormack testified that he had told Cote to disclose the investigation and apologize for bringing embarrassment to the parish, Cote said nothing about the case for nearly three months.

The first indication of a problem in Cote's past came in mid-September when a reporter from the Monadnock Ledger, tipped off by a lawsuit seeking the results of the probe, asked Cote if he had been investigated by local prosecutors for sexual misconduct with a minor.

''There were no findings. There was nothing to find. There was no truth to the allegation. It never amounted to anything because there was nothing there,'' Cote told the newspaper.

A few days later, Cote issued a written statement acknowledging that he had engaged in a five-year sexual relationship with the youth and apologizing for it.

McCormack visited St. Patrick and also apologized to parishioners for the embarrassment caused by the scandal, but he continued to maintain that his transfer of Cote - and his silence about it - were justified because no crime had been committed.

Many parishioners, however, remain upset over McCormack's moves. Sunday attendance, which had been more than 250 on average for the four weekend Masses before Cote's arrival, is now significantly lower. The budget, which had been operating in the black, is now said to be more than $30,000 in the red.

The seven-member advisory board that oversees the operation of the parish school also sees Cote's resignation as the only way to resolve the crisis. According to one former member, it recently voted no confidence in Cote's continued operation of the school and asked McCormack to remove him.

Stephen Kurkjian can be reached at kurkjian@globe.com.

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 10/30/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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