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Spotlight Report

Law aides often dismissed complaints of clergy abuse

By Sacha Pfeiffer, Globe Staff, 4/12/2002

The late Rev. Joseph E. Birmingham left a trail of abuse during a 30-year career in Boston-area parishes.  
Coverage of the Birmingham case
Peter Pollard still feels the sting of it.

In 1988, several weeks after Pollard reported his alleged sexual abuse by the Rev. George Rosenkranz to the Archdiocese of Boston, the church official who handled abuse complaints said he found nothing to justify removing the priest from ministry.

The Rev. John B. McCormack, now bishop of Manchester, N.H., said Rosenkranz merely had ''sexual issues,'' adding that what Pollard viewed as abuse - acts that included Rosenkranz's request that he masturbate in front of him - may simply have been expressions of affection, according to Pollard.

''I was stunned,'' Pollard said. ''I couldn't reconcile what he was saying with what I told him.''

Although the public's anger over the clergy sex abuse crisis shaking the Boston archdiocese has focused on Cardinal Bernard F. Law, McCormack's letters and reported remarks highlight a key reality: It was also Law's lieutenants who, whether acting on his behalf or responding to his orders, often supported abusive priests and dismissed their victims.

Although McCormack may be the most stark example, he is only one in a long line of subordinates whose solicitous treatment of admitted sex offenders contrasts sharply with their casual attitude toward victims who came to them for help.

The names and signatures of Bishops Thomas V. Daily of Brooklyn and Robert J. Banks of Green Bay, Wis., who were top deputies under Law, also feature prominently in thousands of church documents recently made public in Boston.

All three went on to prominent positions within the church. Their actions and career trajectories raise new questions about the roles they played in the unfolding scandal.

Calls to McCormack and Daily were not returned.

McCormack was a central player under Law in handling the abuses of some of the most egregious offenders, such as the Revs. Paul R. Shanley, Joseph E. Birmingham, and John G. Geoghan.

The archdiocese has paid settlements to at least five of Shanley's alleged victims. Lawyers estimate he may have molested dozens of boys.

Birmingham, who died in 1989 after 29 years as a priest, has been the subject of complaints by more than two dozen victims, several with accounts of how church officials ignored their reports of his compulsive abuse. The archdiocese settled at least one claim against Birmingham for $60,000 in 1991, according to Paul Cultrera, who alleges Birmingham molested him when he was a high school freshman in the early 1960s.

Geoghan, now serving a 9-10-year prison term for indecent assault, is accused of molesting nearly 200 children during his three-decade career.

Two years after he dismissed Pollard's complaint, McCormack took a far friendlier approach with Shanley, despite Shanley's controversial advocacy of sex between men and boys.

''Sensing the loneliness that comes with leaving a parish where you and the parishioners have meant so much to each other,'' McCormack wrote in one of more than a dozen letters to Shanley, who had been placed on sick leave and sent to California in 1990, ''the only thing I can think of are the words of Shakespeare - `Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.'''

In Shanley's case, McCormack reacted nonchalantly to a complaint that Shanley had publicly endorsed sex between men and boys, despite earlier complaints about Shanley's remarks that there was no psychiatric harm from practices like incest or bestiality. The disclosures are detailed in 800 pages of once-secret church documents made public this week.

Indeed, four months after Shanley became pastor in Newton in 1985 - a promotion made despite his history of abuse - McCormack had this to say to Shanley after a woman alerted the chancery that Shanley gave another talk advocating man-boy love: ''Would you care to comment on the remarks she made. You can either put them in writing or we could get together some day about it.'' He signed the letter, ''Fraternally in Christ.''

McCormack also visited Shanley in California in 1991, apparently staying in his rectory with him. And he and Shanley corresponded about a proposal, apparently by Shanley, to create a ''safehouse'' in Palm Springs where the Boston archdiocese could send ''warehoused'' priests.

Yet McCormack took a markedly different attitude toward victims. Pollard, recalling his 1988 conversation with McCormack, said he was shocked by McCormack's easy dismissal of his allegations about Rosenkranz. Rosenkranz, who has been on sick leave since 1990 and has two lawsuits pending against him, could not be reached for comment.

''[McCormack] said that in his experience, when child molesters are confronted they confess, and that Rosenkranz had denied the charges,'' said Pollard, who filed a lawsuit against Rosenkranz earlier this year. ''At that point the conversation really deteriorated, because to me that was basically my word against Rosenkranz's, and he was believing Rosenkranz.''

One woman who said she met twice with McCormack in the early 1990s to report that three of her six sons had been molested by a priest at a parish west of Boston in the 1970s said she received similar treatment. McCormack told her and her husband to be ''good Catholics'' and keep the abuse quiet and assured them their sons would be fine, she said.

''He brushed us aside, and that's what really infuriated me,'' said the woman, who asked for anonymity to protect her children's privacy. ''He didn't take this seriously at all.... The church teaches compassion, love, honesty, and integrity, but I don't know where that is.''

Meanwhile, McCormack is named as a defendant in a suit involving Birmingham, filed last month by James M. Hogan of Wilmington, Del., and later amended to add 13 more alleged victims. Hogan alleges that McCormack saw Birmingham taking him to his rectory bedroom in the 1960s and failed to intercede.

McCormack, a 1960 seminary classmate of Shanley and Birmingham who was assigned to the same Salem parish as Birmingham in the 1960s, has acknowledged that in about 1970 he was warned that Birmingham was molesting children. But he has denied that he ever saw Birmingham take boys into his rectory bedroom.

Both McCormack and Daily have been named as defendants in several civil lawsuits filed in connection with Geoghan's molestations. These suits accuse them of negligence for allegedly knowing of the abuse and doing nothing to stop it. Also named were Bishop William F. Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y., and Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes of New Orleans. The five bishops have all denied the accusations in legal filings.

For his part, Daily, whose Brooklyn diocese is the fifth largest in the country, had for months refused to cooperate with New York authorities seeking information about accused priests. He reversed course Wednesday, announcing that he would turn over the names of all priests in his jurisdiction who have been accused of sexually abusing minors in the last 20 years.

Yet Daily, too, has come under fire for allegedly casting off victims. The Rev. Timothy Lambert, 44, who is on a leave of absence, has accused Daily of brushing off allegations made four years ago that he and his brother were molested as children by a Brooklyn priest still serving as a pastor.

And Daily has come under renewed scrutiny for his handling of the Geoghan case, acknowledging that he should have investigated parishioners' complaints more thoroughly. Church records show Daily played a role in putting Geoghan back in parishes despite complaints that he had molested children.

In a deposition, it was Daily who, when asked why he had not acted more decisively when he was informed in 1980 that a Jamaica Plain parishioner had accused Geoghan of abusing her sons and nephews, replied: ''I am not a policeman; I am a shepherd.''

Banks's credibility has also come under question as church records have become public. Documents in the Shanley case reveal that it was Banks who cleared the way in 1990 for Shanley to take a parish assignment in California with a letter asserting that Shanley had had no problems during his years in Boston.

Banks - who in a letter to Shanley the same year mused that Shanley might take up golf - has said he was unaware of the allegations when he sent the letter.

Futhermore, when Banks was notified by a man that Shanley had allegedly engaged in a graphic sexual conversation with him, Banks concluded in a memo that nothing could be done because Shanley denied that the conversation occurred. Yet there was evidence in chancery files about earlier accusations against Shanley.

In the Geoghan case, church documents show that in 1989, according to his own notes, Banks was told by a psychiatrist who had treated Geoghan: ''You better clip his wings before there is an explosion.... You can't afford to have him in a parish.'' Despite that warning, Geoghan went on to his sixth assignment, at St. Julia's in Weston, and his abuse continued.

Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 4/12/2002.
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