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Thursday, August 12, 2010

McCormack, state’s Catholic leader, to resign

Now that he has reached retirement age, Bishop John McCormack intends to step down from his position as leader of the state’s Roman Catholics.

McCormack submitted his resignation to Pope Benedict XVI just prior to his 75th birthday on Thursday, Diocese of Manchester Spokesman Kevin Donovan said.

The Vatican will most likely accept McCormack’s request to retire, starting a search process for a replacement that could last months. Church hierarchy could also ask that he stay on the job longer, but that possibility seems unlikely because the Vatican grants most retirement requests by bishops and cardinals when they reach 75.

“He has expressed excitement for the road ahead,” Donovan said Thursday. “But he loves his role in leading the diocese.” McCormack is vacationing and was unavailable for comment Thursday.

McCormack has led New Hampshire’s estimated 310,000 Catholics since 1998, when he was appointed bishop and transferred from the Archdiocese of Boston.

His role there, as an aide to Cardinal Bernard Law, later put him in the spotlight as details surfaced that the Boston archdiocese and other dioceses in the U.S. had for decades secretly kept pedophilic priests in active ministry.

McCormack helped handle abuse cases for the Boston archdiocese. When the scandal broke in the mainstream media in 2001, McCormack had by then moved to Manchester, but many Catholics still called for his resignation.

Although Law quit, McCormack refused to step down, saying he had to continue his work as leader of New Hampshire’s Catholics.

“I am sorry for what has happened in our past,” McCormack said in an address to Catholics in February 2003. He asked clergy and laity to move beyond the clergy abuse crisis through charity and prayer.

Merrimack resident Carolyn Disco, who belongs to the laity group Voice of the Faithful, pressed for McCormack’s resignation throughout the previous decade.

On Thursday, Disco extended well wishes to McCormack, but added she hopes he reaches “true awareness of what he did.”

“I don’t understand it – how he can tell us he has no moral or legal culpability,” Disco said of remarks she claims McCormack made when he met with her and other Catholics seeking his removal.

Rye resident Patrick Ford, however, commended McCormack for not buckling to pressure and, he said, for helping the diocese move forward.

“To his very credit, he went the opposite direction,” Ford said on Thursday. “He stood up to the difficulties of the time, and he handled it to the best of his ability and didn’t let it affect his primary role as a bishop: to be out with his people and the clergy.”

Ford credited McCormack with participating in the small and large events of the state’s church and helping the diocese’s priests with their duties as they deal with the larger church’s clergy shortage.

McCormack also put the diocese on the forefront of charitable causes, Ford said. For instance, he helped make New Hampshire Food Bank – a division of New Hampshire Catholic Charities – one of the most “prominent” social agencies in the state, Ford said.

McCormack’s handling of abuse cases in Boston dogged him years later in New Hampshire, but his response to clergy abuse as bishop here was “ahead of the curve,” Ford said.

“When he became bishop, that was one of his first priorities. He put New Hampshire’s house in order,” Ford said.

McCormack was believed to be the first Catholic leader to sign a criminal plea deal, when in 2002, on behalf of the diocese, he reached an agreement with the state attorney general. The diocese avoided possible criminal prosecution by admitting it had endangered children by keeping sexually abusive priests in ministry.

The attorney general’s investigation involved more than 50 priests and 100 victims, and stretched back to the 1960s. But the statute of limitations expired on most of the cases, and the potential charges would have involved only about five or six priests and 30 victims.

As part of the plea deal, the diocese agreed to five audits of its sexual abuse policy by prosecutors, marking a rare venture between church and state. The two sides landed in court at one point, with the attorney general’s office accusing the diocese of dragging its feet in implementing protective measures. But the state ultimately found the diocese compliant.

But not all Catholics found McCormack’s steps on clergy abuse to be sufficient. Voice of the Faithful and another laity group, New Hampshire Catholics for Moral Leadership, continued calling for McCormack to step down.

Now, as McCormack prepares to leave because of personal reasons and not outside pressure, Voice of the Faithful will meet next week to draft a letter listing the qualifications its members would like to see in the next bishop, Disco said.

“This diocese needs healing and I’m not very hopeful about replacements,” Disco said. “We need someone who will make everyone very welcome and heal those divisions.”

Albert McKeon can be reached at 594-5832 or