If you've been wondering how badly the sex abuse crisis has hurt the bishops ability to speak on any moral/ethical challenges in modern civic life, listen to the rhetorical bombs being dropped in New Hampshire (I know, a state that doesn't exactly spring to the fore when contemplating overheated politics). After N.H. Bishop John McCormack joined an inter-religious gathering at the N.H. statehouse on March 31, protesting that the state budget passed by N.H. Republican-leaning House neglected the state's obligation to the elderly, disabled, poor and the vulnerable, he was attacked in a Facebook posting as a "pedophile pimp" by N.H. House Republican Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt. At the demonstration, McCormack criticized the budget and called caring for the poor “the fundamental requirement of our religious heritage.”
Mocking the bishop's comment that the budget was a moral concern because "the vulnerable take priority in any society," Bettencourt, a Catholic, wrote, "Would the Bishop like to discuss his history of protecting the 'vulnerable'? This man is a pedophile pimp who should have been led away from the State House in handcuffs with a rain coat over his head in disgrace. He has absolutely no moral credibility to lecture anyone.”
McCormack, bishop of the Manchester since 1998, has been criticized for his handling of sexually abusive clerics while he served as secretary of ministerial personnel in the mid-1980s in the Boston archdiocese under Cardinal Bernard F. Law. A spokesperson for the diocese said that Bettencourt's remarks were false, defamatory and detracted from the real issue—the state's obligation to the poor.
After resisting pressure to apologize through the weekend, by Saturday, the young representative had a change of heart and said he would meet with Bishop McCormack to offer a personal apology for his comments, which he allowed, were undiplomatic. His letter to the bishop didn't sound altogether apologetic, however. Bettencourt seemed most remorseful with the tone, rather than the content of his post, and he could not resist adding, that for many Catholics, McCormack's "presence as bishop is an ongoing reminder of an evil that was perpetrated on those most vulnerable and innocent."
He wrote: "My comments reflected my feelings toward someone who, in his position, played such a prominent role in a terribly dark chapter in the history of the Catholic Church." He added, "Unfortunately, your role in that scandal has, in my opinion, hurt the Church in ways that will take decades to repair . . . From my perspective it will be a much needed new chapter for New Hampshire Catholics when your retirement is accepted and we can bring new leadership to the church that is untainted by the past abuses." Bettencourt also defended his reaction to McCormack's criticism of the House budget. He said House budget writers "poured their hearts" into protecting N.H.'s most vulnerable.
It will probably come as no surprise that Bettencourt's "apology" has hardly satisfied Catholic League bulldog Bill Donohue, who had been calling for the speaker's official censure.
"I just read Bettencourt's letter, and this guy has an uncanny ability to dig himself in even deeper," Donohue told the N.H. UnionLeader newspaper. "All he had to do was to issue a one-sentence or a one-paragraph statement saying that he regrets the regrets the vicious accusation that he made against the bishop, and the issue would have been over," Donohue said, "but instead, there's no apology . . . there is a long-winded attempt to divert attention from why he is on the hot seat," he said. "Therefore the Catholic League hopes that his colleagues move to censure him.
"This kind of incivility has no legitimate role to play in public life," Donohue said.
While Bettencourt prepares for his appointment with the bishop, he has elected to suspend his Facebook page. He might by now be wishing he had made that decision a few posts ago. Bishop McCormack for his part may want to consider that comments on the story at the UnionLeader website appear to be running strongly in Bettencourt's favor . . .