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Church in Crisis

Protesters target Manchester’s Bishop McCormack

Manchester, N.H.

The Sunday Boston Globe’s front-page story Jan. 26 couldn’t have been more timely. The newspaper’s “Spotlight Team,” in a follow-up report, wrote: “An examination of thousands of pages of internal church records make clear that [Bishop John B.] McCormack, now bishop of the Manchester, N.H., diocese, [and a key adviser to Cardinal Bernard F. Law], was an administrator whose first sympathies frequently lay with his brother priests. With him, their words often carried greater weight than those of their victims.”

The day that Globe story greeted New Englanders, dozens of protesters in New Hampshire were joined by friends and advocates imported from the greater Boston area for a march of protest and solidarity at Manchester’s St. Joseph Cathedral. They were a mix of ages and backgrounds: church reformers and victim-survivors, joined by their families and friends. Nearly 250 people braved the morning’s bitter temperatures to show support for victims of sexual abuse by priests and to urge McCormack’s resignation.

Their message came across loud and clear -- in speeches, through placards, with strains of classical music in the background: Support survivors. Bishop McCormack must go. Speak Truth to Power -- STTOP McCormack.

“I’m here because I have to stand with the victims and survivors, and I don’t hear much at all about them at our local parish,” said Maggie Fogarty of St. Thomas More Parish in Durham, N.H. “If I don’t physically align myself with the victims, then I don’t know what to do with the pain of their stories.” The mother of two small children, Fogarty said, “It all feels very personal when I look at them.”

Fogarty, like many other protesters, also came to voice opposition to McCormack’s staying on as the spiritual leader of the diocese. The jurisdiction of the diocese includes the entire state, with a total Catholic population of nearly 326,000. In other words, approximately 28 percent of the state’s population is Catholic.

“Absolutely, he has to go. I can’t be a part of the solution here until he is gone.” Fogarty added. “His behavior is appalling. He has no moral credibility at all because over and over and over again he took the word of priests over the cries of victims and their mothers.”

Other protesters, members of New Hampshire Voice of the Faithful, sounded similar sentiments:

“His name appears way too often” in the church documents, said Lynn Holmes of Durham.

“He can be forgiven but he must be held accountable. And that means losing his job,” said Barbara Troxell.

“He’s still in denial,” said Peg Boucher. “I’ve written to him four times. In the last letter he said ‘I always supported children.’ ” But, she added, “The children came after the clergy.”

“Something systemically, surgically needs to be corrected here, maybe Vatican III,” said Lynn Holmes’ husband, David Holmes.

Yet another protester, Joan Barrett of Man-chester, said, “Bishop McCormack had a lot to do with this [situation here in New Hampshire] continuing so long. He has not admitted guilt except under pressure, starting and mounting to get rid of him.”

Like Fogarty, Barrett is also a mother; one of her two daughters attends the diocese’s Trinity High School. “It’s been very difficult,” she said. “[McCormack] came to speak at my daughter’s school, and some of the things he said were not very truthful.”

She added: “I first came three weeks ago [to a protest] when I read in one of our papers that a monsignor in a big parish in town said the [the Massachusetts protesters] had no right to cross the state border. As far as I am concerned, we are all Christians together. I thank them for coming here and being a catalyst to get New Hampshire people moving,” she said.

At least one speaker picked up on Barrett’s point. “I know that many of you who call New Hampshire home really don’t want us here today,” said John Vellante of North Andover, Mass. But “clergy sexual abuse has no state boundaries. It happened here just as it happened in Massachusetts and in so many other states across the land,” he added. Vellante alleges he was abused not only in Massachusetts, but also once in Concord, N.H., by a former priest.

The Jan. 26 march, cosponsored by the Coalition of Catholics and Survivors and the New Hampshire Voice of the Faithful -- representing eight chapters statewide -- was organized to demonstrate “grief and support for victims and survivors of sexual abuse by the clergy,” according to a flier distributed by the two organizations.

“Marking the first anniversary of the exposure of this crisis, the march enables us to show our unabated support for untold numbers of people who were sexually abused as children by priests,” said Anne Barrett Doyle, a spokesperson for the Coalition of Catholics and Survivors. “Their cries for justice remain unanswered.”

The march also garnered support from other local church-reform and victims-advocacy groups, including the New England chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP; Survivors First; and Speak Truth to Power, or STTOP.

National leaders from SNAP, including executive director David Clohessy, and Susan Archibald, president of The Linkup, a 3,000-member victim-survivors’ organization, also attended and spoke to the crowd attending the event, the largest in New Hampshire to date.

Dominican Fr. Thomas Doyle, the winner of this year’s Isaac Hecker Award for Social Justice, also addressed the crowd. “Looking into the faces, listening to the stories, and sensing and feeling the pain of the men and women, boys and girls who were brutalized and soul-raped” has changed his life, Doyle said. “For a long time, the four most painful words that I often had to say was, ‘I am a priest.’ ” Yet, he said, “Being with you and walking with you is a great privilege in my life.”

The Manchester march was similar to one held last summer in Boston (NCR, July 5). Outside St. Joseph’s Cathedral protesters unveiled placards, bearing names and photographs of children at the approximate age of their sexual abuse. Holding the signs overhead, one by one, protesters stepped up to a small platform to identify the victims and speak, some through tears:

“John, abused at age 12, 1958–1959, while studying for the priesthood.”

“Six years old, still innocent when the abuse began.”

“Mary abused as a child, as were two of her children.”

“Denise, abuse began at 10 years of age, the same age as my daughter.”

All told, 83 names of alleged victims rang out from the somber stillness among the protesters. The strains of “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber captured the mood and set the tone for the hour and half recitation, and subsequent silent march around the red brick cathedral, now a new focal point for the national crisis in the Catholic church.

“It’s very moving,” said Tom Blanchette, of Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., himself a survivor of clergy sex abuse, abuse that started at age 11. “This is much more effective than shouting.”

McCormack did not celebrate Mass inside St. Joseph Cathedral that day. His spokesperson, Patrick McGee, declined to give McCormack’s exact location. “We are not putting that out,” he told the local media. “We don’t want [the smaller parishes] to become part of the story,” he told a Boston Globe reporter.

The Manchester Union Leader reported next day that the bishop celebrated Mass in northern New Hampshire. McGee also told a Union Leader reporter, “The [church here] does stand in solidarity with all victims of abuse.”

McCormack has no plans to resign, McGee said. He was quoted in The Union Leader as saying, McCormack “plans to continue to work to move the church forward in its mission in New Hampshire and to continue to make sure the actions of abuse never happens again.”

Still, for one survivor, Kathy Dwyer of Braintree, Mass. -- and any number of protesters --McCormack has a tough sell. “I grew up in a poor, working class Irish family, and being Catholic was more of our identity than even being Irish,” Dwyer told the solidarity protest and march attendees.

In Manchester and in Boston, for increasing numbers of the laity, maintaining that Catholic identity presents a constant challenge. “I haven’t lost my faith,” said Maggie Fogarty. Perhaps a “profound renewal” is underway, she suggested. Just maybe “God can work good through something as chaotic and disastrous as this.”

Free-lance journalist Chuck Colbert writes from Cambridge, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, February 7, 2003