It was 1994 and the Boston Archdiocese was being deluged with complaints that scores of its priests had sexually molested hundreds of children.
But the Rev. John B. McCormack, then the top church official handling the complaints for Cardinal Bernard F. Law, insisted on shielding the identities of accused priests from unsuspecting parishioners - despite the repeated pleas of his top aide who fielded complaints about more than 100 priests.
In five days of pretrial testimony released yesterday, McCormack said that he and a small group of church officials, including the chief legal counsel for the archdiocese, decided to keep the names of accused priests secret “to avoid scandalizing people about the sexual abuse committed by clergy.”
McCormack, now bishop of the Manchester, N.H., diocese, said he knew the decision ran counter to a recommendation by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops that the church be forthright with parishioners. He also said the decision was made after Sister Catherine E. Mulkerrin, his top aide and the church official who had the most contact with victims, told him he should inform parishioners about accused priests - parishioners who might have children in harm’s way.
Mulkerrin pressed the point so often that she worried at one point about sounding like a “broken record.” In her own pretrial testimony, she said she was “horrified” by the number of complaints and the plight of victims who had suffered in silence for years, according to the parent of an alleged victim who sat in on her deposition.
McCormack, who was in charge of drafting Law’s 1993 policy for managing complaints of clergy abuse of minors, conceded in deposition testimony that the decision he and other church officials made to keep the identities of accused priests secret ran counter to guidelines of the bishops’ confrence, which urged officials to “deal as openly as possible with the members of the community.”
Under questioning by Roderick MacLeish Jr., an attorney representing alleged victims of the Rev. Paul R. Shanley, McCormack acknowledged a clash of values between Mulkerrin, whose chief concern was the welfare of victims, and a cluster of church officials intent on maintaining the confidentiality of accused priests.
MacLeish: You would agree with me that one of the reasons it would be important to let the parishioners know was because they might be able to get help for their children, is that correct?
MacLeish: That’s what Sister Catherine told you, is that not correct?
McCormack: Right, correct.
MacLeish: And you decided that that was not an appropriate policy, is that correct?
McCormack: Not myself; it was a matter of discussion among some of us.”
McCormack said that discussion was held by a group that met weekly and included Wilson D. Rogers Jr., chief legal counsel for the archdiocese, the Rev. Kevin J. Deeley, the Rev. Edward M. O’Flaherty, and Mulkerrin.
Asked if he had ever discussed with Law the decision to keep the identities of accused priests secret, McCormack said, “Not that I recall; I don’t think so.” McCormack also said that in the years he served as Law’s secretary for ministerial personnel, from 1984 to 1994, the protection of children was never defined as a “first priority” but was “a matter of concern.”
Law, in his own deposition testimony, has repeatedly described the protection of children as a top concern.
McCormack’s spokesman in the Manchester diocese, Patrick McGee, responded to the revelations in the depositions by citing a May 2, 2002, statement by McCormack acknowledging mistakes he made in his Boston years. “But he has also said that he has learned from those mistakes and he has learned to handle complaints differently than he did 10 years ago,” McGee said.
Brian Tucker, one of McCormack’s lawyers, said transcripts of his testimony do not provide “a complete accounting of what Father McCormack and the Archdiocese of Boston did and did not do to respond to accusations of misconduct of minors by priests there.”
Mulkerrin’s pretrial testimony, given last month, will not be released until later this year. But Rodney P. Ford, the parent of an alleged Shanley victim, attended her deposition, and described it in a telephone interview from his home yesterday. He said Mulkerrin testified that in two years as McCormack’s top aide, from 1992 to 1994, she heard sexual abuse complaints against more than 100 priests - most of whom were living at the time.
Mulkerrin also said she heard complaints from hundreds of victims and came to believe that almost all of them were credible, according to Ford. Mulkerrin’s repeated - and unsuccessful - attempts to persuade McCormack to inform parishioners about accused clergymen are also reflected in McCormack’s deposition.
At one point, MacLeish presented McCormack with a copy of a memo written to him by Mulkerrin recommending that the identities of accused priests be published in parish bulletins.
MacLeish: Sister Catherine was telling you in this memorandum, as she had told you before, that in light of everything that was happening with the priests being reported for sexual abuse that there was a need to put something in the various parish bulletins where these priests had been, correct?
MacLeish: And it was not done, was it?
Mulkerrin, according to Ford, said in her own deposition that she made her recommendations in part to conform with the conference of bishops’ guidelines and in part because other dioceses, including the St. Paul and Minneapolis diocese, had been informing parishioners about abusive priests who had ministered in their churches.
Mulkerrin, Ford said, stated that she routinely represented the interests of the victims while McCormack’s primary concern seemed to be his fellow priests.
“The lasting impression I have of what she said was how overwhelmed she was with the complaints that were coming in and of how she had nowhere to turn,” Ford said. “She was alone, a voice in the wilderness, and she finally got drowned out.”
Mulkerrin resigned her position in 1994 after only two years on the job. She has never publicly aired her concerns.
Mulkerrin’s lawyer, William H. Shaevel, said Mulkerrin was on a religious retreat yesterday and unavailable for comment.
At several points in his testimony, given on five days between June and November of last year, McCormack said he had little knowledge of child sexual abuse when he was named secretary for ministerial personnel, even though he held a graduate degree in social work and was a licensed social worker for most of the 1980s.
“I knew that there was abuse of children in the home, but oftentimes it was emotional or physical,” McCormack said, speaking of what he learned while training as a social worker. “I don’t recall any kind of report or discussion about sexual abuse.”
At another point McCormack said his rudimentary understanding of child sexual abuse factored into the decision that he and others made to keep the identities of accused priests secret - despite the guidelines issued by the bishops’ conference.
“Much of my understanding of sexual abuse was almost like a layman; it was only as we began to - as I began to deal with this, that it developed,” McCormack said. “So all of that played into why we decided to keep things confidential.”
Aware of legal hurdles
But at other times McCormack displayed a sophisticated understanding of the legal hurdles church officials might face if civil authorities were informed of clergy abuse allegations.
Under questioning by Robert R. Sherman, another attorney representing alleged Shanley victims, McCormack said he never made a record of Shanley’s response to a 1993 allegation that he molested a minor because, “I want to get as best a response as possible, but I had to respect his rights.” McCormack then added: “I learned more and more as we dealt with this that whatever was said to us was discoverable, and he had to know that.”
McCormack also was questioned about his more recent tenure as leader of the Manchester diocese and his decision to reassign the Rev. Roland P. Cote to a Jaffrey, N.H., parish last June even though Cote had admitted to a sexual affair with a male teenager.
McCormack said he was satisfied with a statement Cote made to Jaffrey parishioners explaining the affair. “I feel comfortable with the fact that having gotten up in public and spoken to his people about it. . . . (H)e has said that he’s sorry for whatever he has brought to the parish in terms of this,” McCormack said.
Jaffrey parishioners, however, were unhappy with Cote’s explanation. They complained in September that they still had unanswered questions about whether the priest’s affair involved a teenaged boy. Cote resigned from active ministry in early November.
Decade as secretary
But most of the questions directed at McCormack during his deposition concerned the decade he served as Law’s secretary for ministerial personnel. At one point, McCormack acknowledged that the archdiocese did not report to state authorities a complaint that the Rev. Paul J. Mahan had taken two teenage boys from the now-shuttered Don Bosco Preparatory School on a vacation until 1997, three years after it learned of the allegation.
At the time, McCormack’s license as a social worker had expired and priests were not required to report information regarding possible child sexual abuse to civil authorities.
McCormack also faced questions about favorable treatment he granted to several other priests accused of molesting minors, including four who were classmates at St. John Seminary in the class of 1960: the Revs. Shanley, Joseph E. Birmingham, Bernard J. Lane, and Eugene M. O’Sullivan.
McCormack offered a new explanation for his response to a 1985 letter from a Rochester, N.Y., woman complaining that Shanley had given a speech on sexual relationships between adults and children, contending that children are generally the seducers.
In his May 2 statement of apology, McCormack said he “did not focus” on the reference to sex between adults and minors in 1985. But in his June 3 deposition, McCormack said he had discussed the letter with Shanley and that Shanley said he was referring in his speech to child prostitutes.
When questioned about Birmingham, McCormack was asked about his assertion, also in his May apology, that he never intended that “a priest be placed in an assignment where he could be in contact with children if he had an allegation of sexual abuse.”
McCormack acknowledged that in 1987, when the father of a 13-year-old altar boy serving with Birmingham wrote a letter asking whether Birmingham was the same priest who had previously been removed from another parish because of a sexal abuse allegation, McCormack replied, “There is absolutely no factual basis to your concern.”
Asked why he did not tell the concerned father that his son was indeed serving with the same Father Birmingham, McCormack said, “I can’t explain that.”