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Cloud of sex abuse scandal lingers as Catholic bishop in NH prepares for mandatory retirement

Eight years after telling parishioners that his role in Boston's church sex abuse scandal clouded his future in New Hampshire, Bishop John B. McCormack is stepping down from the Diocese of Manchester due to age, not accusations.

As required by Catholic church rules, the 75-year-old bishop sent a letter of resignation to the Vatican this week but will remain on the job until his resignation is formally recognized. In the meantime, devoted parishioners are celebrating his leadership and compassion while critics are glad to see him go.

McCormack's tenure as the leader of New Hampshire's 310,000 Catholics started in 1998 and turned tumultuous in early 2002 when the sex abuse scandal erupted in Boston. Victims and grass roots Catholic groups called on him to resign, citing his former position as a top aide to Cardinal Bernard Law in Boston, where he was in charge of investigating allegations of sexual misconduct by priests.

"McCormack was absolutely in the thick of everything that blew up in 2002," said Terence McKiernan of BishopAccountability.org. "In many, many of the crucial sexual abuse cases in Boston, McCormack's hands were really on the controls."

That same year, McCormack averted unprecedented criminal charges against the New Hampshire diocese by agreeing that it had harmed children by moving abusive priests from parish to parish.

"These days, my past haunts my present and clouds my future with you in New Hampshire," he told parishioners in December 2002, just after Law resigned and the New Hampshire settlement was reached. At the same time, he said the best way he could help alleged victims was to serve and lead the church well.

"He did the best he could given the tools he had to work with," said Peter Charron, a funeral home director and parishioner of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary in Rochester. Charron said McCormack has been a good leader, particularly in encouraging men to become priests.

"His spirituality is very high," he said Friday.

Under the 2002 agreement, prosecutors agreed to not seek criminal indictments against the diocese for failing to protect children from molesting priests. In return, the diocese agreed to enact strict child protection policies, admits its actions had harmed children and open itself to audits by the attorney general's office.

McCormack was on vacation Friday and not available for comment. Over the years, he has acknowledged he made mistakes and that he did not adequately help victims. When the final audit was released last year, then-Attorney General Kelly Ayotte said the church had made dramatic policy changes to protect children but recommended further improvements with which the diocese quickly agreed.

Assistant Attorney General Will Delker said Friday that the diocese's compliance with both the investigation preceding the settlement and the audits afterward was uneven at best. It took two years and a court battle to work out the scope and cost of the audits. In 2007, auditors found critical gaps in programs to protect children and expressed concern about the "tone at the top."

But "in the final two years of the audit, things seemed to have turned around in a much more positive way, and by the last year, we and the auditor were comfortable that they had put in place a program that was effective and sustainable," Delker said.

Carolyn Disco, a member of the group Voice of the Faithful, said she worries the diocese will revert to secrecy now that the audits are done.

"There's been significant progress but it's forced virtue. It's something that without the attorney general's office, without public reaction, without media, I don't think any of it would have happened," she said. "I don't deny the changes in policies that have occurred. It's just that when you've had to be dragged kicking and screaming along the way, that makes a statement."

She said she wishes McCormack good health in retirement but hopes he develops a greater awareness of his record.

"This is not an abstraction. It has terrible personal consequences. I'm concerned he just doesn't understand the whole situation," she said.

Jane Rioux of Exeter said she understands how much victims have been hurt and why they have had a difficult time letting go, but that she views McCormack as an honorable and wonderful man. Rioux is co-chairwoman of the Bishop's Charitable Assistance Fund, which has distributed millions of dollars to nonprofit groups around the state.

"What I've found with the bishop is if we say no, we better have a good reason because he's very passionate about helping the poor and immigrants and helping them assimilate into society," she said. "He's a lovely man. We'll miss him."

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