Man says future bishop ignored sex abuse

Cardinal also accused of hearing allegations, telling him to keep secret

March 24, 2002|By THE BOSTON GLOBE

A former Salem, Mass., man who alleges that he was sexually molested hundreds of times by a parish priest in the 1960s said that Bishop John B. McCormack of Manchester, N.H., who was assigned to the same Salem parish at the time, saw the priest taking him to his rectory bedroom and did nothing to stop it.

McCormack, who was an auxiliary bishop in Boston under Cardinal Bernard F. Law, said through a spokesman that the allegation by James Hogan is false.

But in response to Globe inquiries, he acknowledged that he was warned more than 30 years ago that the Rev. Joseph E. Birmingham was molesting children at St. James Parish in Salem.

Thomas Blanchette, who also alleges that Birmingham molested him in the 1960s, said he approached Law at Birmingham's funeral in 1989 and told him about the abuse.

Prayer for victim

Blanchette said Law silently prayed for him, but then instructed him to keep the information secret.

"He laid his hands on my head for two or three minutes," Blanchette said.

"And then he said this: `I bind you by the power of the confessional never to speak about this to anyone else.' And that just burned me big time. ... I didn't ask him to hear my confession. I went there to inform him," he said of Law.

Abuse of brothers alleged

Blanchette said his four brothers were also molested by Birmingham.

A spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Boston, Donna M. Morrissey, said yesterday that Law has "a vague recollection of such an encounter" but "no memory of the words exchanged."

Morrissey added that "it is inconceivable to him, however, that he would ever have counseled someone never to speak of what they have suffered."

Law is willing to meet with Blanchette "to clarify any misunderstanding," Morrissey said.

Lawyer fears `trail of victims'

During his three decades as a priest, Birmingham, who died at age 55, served in six parishes and as juvenile court chaplain of Brighton Municipal Court, and allegedly left a trail of victims behind: Five men have told the Globe that they were sexually abused by Birmingham beginning in the 1960s and as late as the 1980s - including one who received a $60,000 settlement from the archdiocese in 1996.

Boston lawyer Robert A. Sherman, who represents Hogan, called Birmingham's history of alleged molestation "one of the worst cases in terms of the amount of abuse" he has encountered in a decade of representing victims of sexual abuse by priests.

Said Sherman: "This is a priest who the archdiocese should have put in jail, but instead they moved him to other parishes ... where, my fear is, there's going to be a trail of victims that will approach the numbers we saw for Father [John] Geoghan and Father [James] Porter."

Lawsuit planned

Sherman said he will file a lawsuit tomorrow on Hogan's behalf, naming as defendants the Boston Archdiocese and McCormack, who was a seminary classmate of Birmingham's.

In 1970, Birmingham was transferred from St. James in Salem, where he and McCormack served together, to St. Michael in Lowell. Birmingham had yet another assignment at St. Columbkille in Brighton before he was promoted to pastor of St. Ann in Gloucester in 1985.

Birmingham's last assignment before his death was at St. Brigid in Lexington.

Responsibility denied

When Birmingham was promoted to pastor in Gloucester in 1985, McCormack was cabinet secretary for ministerial personnel for the Boston Archdiocese. But he said in the statement that he did not have "direct" responsibility for assigning priests, including Birmingham.

From 1992 to 1995 - after Birmingham's death - McCormack handled sexual abuse complaints for the archdiocese. McCormack was promoted to auxiliary bishop in 1995. He has been bishop of the Manchester Diocese since 1998.

McCormack and Birmingham, who were ordained in 1960, served together in the 1960s at St. James. That is where Paul Cultrera, the victim who received the $60,000 settlement, said Birmingham began molesting him when he was a high school freshman in 1963 or 1964.

Patrick McGee, a spokesman for the Manchester Diocese, said that McCormack, "to the best of his recollection, never saw anyone being taken into Father Birmingham's quarters."

School ousts priest as leader

Also last week, a Los Angeles Roman Catholic priest was ousted as president of a boys parochial school after allegations surfaced that he molested boys in the 1970s.

The Rev. Dominic Savino, 63, was fired Friday as president of Crespi Carmelite High School in Encino and barred from acting as a priest by the Order of Carmelites, the religious order that operates the school.

Meanwhile, in St. Louis, the archdiocese said it has paid about $1.6 million over the past 20 years to people who claim they were molested by Roman Catholic priests.

"The rationale is to assist people who have brought complaints," Bernard C. Huger, a lawyer for the archdiocese, said in yesterday's St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "In some cases, settlements were made even if the claim was considered not to be substantiated."

Church officials said most of the claims were substantiated.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this article.

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