John B. McCormack, the retired Roman Catholic Bishop for New Hampshire who admitted to protecting the identities of priests accused of sexually abusing children, has died, the Diocese of Manchester, N.H., confirmed in a Facebook post Wednesday.
McCormack died Tuesday at Mount Carmel Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Manchester, the diocese said. He was 86.
The leader of New Hampshire’s Catholics from 1998 to 2011, when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 75, McCormack became the state’s ninth bishop after serving as a top aide to Cardinal Bernard Law for the Boston Archdiocese in the 1990s.
In 2002, after a Globe Spotlight report revealed how the church had for decades gone to great lengths to protect clergy members who sexually assaulted children, McCormack faced growing calls for his resignation as the top Catholic in New Hampshire.
While serving the church in Boston, Law gave McCormack, who grew up in Cambridge, the responsibility to weed out abusive priests. But Globe reports in the wake of the church abuse scandal found that McCormack had instead showed a penchant for protecting priests and guided some to lawyers and therapists, effectively clearing the way for their return to ministry.
The Globe’s reports found that McCormack had taken a particular interest in protecting accused priests with whom he attended seminary school. This included Joseph E. Birmingham, who with McCormack was a member of St. John’s Seminary class of 1960. Birmingham was accused of molesting more than 50 boys in parishes in Sudbury, Salem, and Lowell.
McCormack acknowledged that in 1970, when he was regional director of Catholic Charities, he was warned by several parents that Birmingham had molested children at St. James in Salem. He referred the parents to Birmingham’s pastor. Years later, in 1987, when the father of an altar boy working with Birmingham wrote a letter asking whether Birmingham was the same priest who had been removed from another parish while facing abuse allegations, McCormack wrote back, “There is absolutely no factual basis to your concern,” the Globe reported.
In 2002, McCormack avoided criminal charges against the New Hampshire diocese by agreeing that it had harmed children by allowing abusive priests to move from parish to parish. Prosecutors agreed to not seek criminal indictments against the diocese, and in return the diocese agreed to install strict child protection policies and open itself to audits by the New Hampshire attorney general’s office.
McCormack would go on to acknowledge that he made mistakes and did not adequately help the victims of abuse.
“These days, my past haunts my present and clouds my future with you in New Hampshire,” he told parishioners in December 2002, just after Law resigned and the New Hampshire settlement was reached. At the same time, he said the best way he could help victims was to serve and lead the church well.
McCormack was born in Winthrop and attended St. Mary’s Grammar School in Cambridge and Boston College High School, according to his obituary. After attending Cardinal O’Connell Seminary College and St. John’s Seminary in Boston, McCormack was ordained by Richard Cardinal Cushing for the Archdiocese of Boston at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross on Feb. 2, 1960, his obituary said. He earned a master’s degree in social work from Boston College in 1969.
McCormack held a doctorate of divinity and served in several parishes and positions in Massachusetts before becoming the auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Boston.
McCormack was succeeded in New Hampshire by Bishop Peter Anthony Libasci, who was previously auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Rockville Centre in New York. In a July court filing in New York, Libasci was accused of sexually abusing an altar boy while working as a parish priest on Long Island, N.Y., in the 1980s. Libasci has denied the allegations.
Materials from the Associated Press was used in this report.