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The Nation

A Requiem for a Loss of Innocence

Bearing their portraits and telling their stories, hundreds rally for alleged victims of clerical abuse at a New Hampshire cathedral.

January 27, 2003|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

MANCHESTER, N.H. — The pictures showed boys in Little League uniforms, girls in first Communion veils, teens decked out for their proms. But the stories that accompanied the 84 portraits betrayed no traces of childhood joys or innocence. "Skip, abused at age 11," intoned one of several hundred protesters gathered outside St. Joseph Cathedral here Sunday. "Terry, abused at age 14 -- and told it was her fault when she told another priest."

More than an hour passed before each of the seven dozen posters honoring alleged clerical-abuse victims had been described, then held high against a snowy sky. Protesters huddled close for warmth on a morning where the thermometer worked hard to graze 20 degrees. Strong voices cracked and eyes brimmed over as a loudspeaker played the somber tones of Mozart's "Requiem."

Billed as a gathering in support of victims, New Hampshire's first demonstration of its kind since the priest sex scandal began a year ago also was intended as a stab at Catholic church leaders. For many assembled opposite the red brick cathedral, a particular target was Bishop John B. McCormack, head of the Diocese of Manchester and a longtime associate of Cardinal Bernard Law.

Law -- who stepped down as head of the beleaguered Boston Archdiocese on Dec. 13 -- had handpicked McCormack to run the diocese that oversees all Catholics in New Hampshire. Until he resigned the post last year, McCormack also was chairman of the U.S. bishops' ad hoc committee on sexual abuse.

While Law and the Boston Archdiocese were at the epicenter of a scandal that prompted four U.S. bishops to leave their jobs in 2002, hundreds of accusations also surfaced in New Hampshire. From 1943 to 2002, at least 55 priests were named in sexual abuse complaints, according to figures from the New Hampshire diocese.

Under threat of criminal prosecution, church officials here signed an accord in the fall releasing previously confidential records to the state attorney general.

In one class-action decision, Manchester attorney Peter Hutchins last year negotiated a $6-million settlement for 68 alleged clerical abuse victims in his state.

McCormack, who as Law's secretary for ministerial affairs managed secret files kept on priests accused of pedophilia, has sat through several depositions in civil suits filed in Boston. Testifying last week, the bishop said he believed sexual abuse by a priest to be a sin, but he did not know it was a crime, according to an alleged victim who witnessed the deposition.

Neither McCormack nor the New Hampshire diocese's spokesman had any comment about Sunday's demonstration.

Many worshipers arriving for the 10:30 a.m. Mass also did not want to talk about the protest. Retired police Det. Jimmy Stewart stood on the church steps, observing. "It is all right when it's like this, quiet and dignified," Stewart said. "But when they yell slurs at you, saying your children will be raped, that is too much."

But Father Tom Doyle, a Dominican priest who serves as an Air Force chaplain in Germany, said Sunday that the protests have not gone far enough. Then a canon lawyer at the Vatican embassy in Washington, Doyle was one of three authors of a landmark 1985 report urging the Vatican to adopt strict policies on sexual abuse by clergy.

The report -- "shelved" by Vatican officials, Doyle said -- recommended crisis intervention and compassion for victims. But his superiors "didn't even hear" the report's contents, Doyle said. "They were operating with a massive sense of denial, as well as a lack of compassion," he said. "These survivors threaten them and their power. If they acknowledge them, the walls could come tumbling down, jeopardizing their power and the prestige of their system."

Doyle said the steady momentum of the yearlong abuse crisis was both surprising and encouraging.

"We all thought after two or three weeks it would quiet down. But look," he said, gesturing at the crowd of demonstrators. "This is the Catholic church -- the church is right here, the people." As for the cathedral behind him: "That is just decoration."

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