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In New Hampshire, an intemperate legislator, a disgraced bishop

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Apr 07, 2011

David Bettencourt, the Republican majority leader in the lower house of the New Hampshire state legislature, has now apologized for calling his bishop a “pedophile pimp.” Bettencourt and Bishop John McCormack have met, their spokesmen say that the meeting went well, and both have declined further comment on the matter.

If only their defenders could show equal forbearance, a very ugly incident could be behind us. Unfortunately, Bettencourt’s uncivil outburst was followed by some more intemperate rhetoric: both from stalwart Catholics defending their bishops and from New Hampshire Republicans rallying to their colleague. As a result, the damage done by Bettencourt’s harsh words was compounded by wild charges on both sides. Without pointing fingers or naming names, let’s set the record straight on a couple of issues:

  • Bettencourt is not an anti-Catholic bigot. He is, in fact, a serious Catholic and an ardent pro-lifer. It is precisely because he identifies with the Catholic Church that he lost his temper when his bishop weighed in against him in the New Hampshire budget battle.
  • Bishop McCormack has a right to speak on budget issues. He violated no law by expressing his views, and it is dangerous nonsense to suggest that a religious leader cannot make public statements on controversial current issues.

Whether Bishop McCormack’s statement was prudent, is a very different question, however. He had every legal right to speak. But was he wise to do so? Was it wise, in particular, for the bishop to charge that Republican budget plans were endangering the most vulnerable members of society?

In his angry outburst, Bettencourt made a valid and important point—which was, unfortunately, lost from public view in the uproar caused by those two regrettable words. “Would the bishop like to discuss his history of protecting the 'vulnerable?'” Bettencourt asked in his much-discussed Facebook rant. After calling attention to the bishop’s abysmal record in handling the sex-abuse scandal, the angry legislator concluded: “He has absolutely no moral authority to lecture anyone.” Bettencourt used appalling language, and in doing so he distracted attention his own argument. But the Manchester Union Leader caught the point :

Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt would not need to apologize, as he rightly did yesterday, had he been more subtle in his remarks questioning McCormack's moral authority.

In its editorial, the Union Leader reminded readers that it had called for Bishop McCormack’s resignation long ago—not because of any political statements he made, but because he had squandered his moral capital with his handling of the sex-abuse crisis. In Boston, as an aide to Cardinal Law, he had shown an appalling indifference to the victims of priestly abuse. In New Hampshire, he entered a plea-bargain agreement with the state’s attorney general, acknowledging that the prosecutor had sufficient evidence to bring criminal charges against his diocese. Bettencourt’s point is, unfortunately, directly on target. A Catholic bishop has the right—and at times it is a duty—to speak out on behalf of those who are in need. But this particular bishop is in no position to lecture anyone on caring for the vulnerable.

When a bishop has lost his ability to serve as a moral leader, what can he do? The Union Leader was right; the honorable choice was resignation. But Bishop McCormack did not step down, nor did the Vatican, or his fellow bishops, demand his resignation. Now we see the ugly consequences. If he had left office in 2002, and his successor had uttered the same words about the New Hampshire budget, Republican legislators might have disagreed, but they would not have exploded in outrage. This entire nasty incident could have been avoided.

Last August, when Bishop McCormack celebrated his 75th birthday, he was obligated under Church law to submit his resignation at last. Inexplicably, the Vatican has not yet accepted it. So now the damage is done. The next Bishop of Manchester, when he finally does arrive, will have even more trouble restoring the credibility of his position. This, too, could have been avoided.

The moral of the story, for David Bettencourt and other legislators: Weigh your words; keep a civil tongue.

The moral of the story, for Bishop McCormack and other Catholic leaders: When you have forfeited your moral authority, resign.

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Show 11 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: JDeFauw - Apr. 13, 2011 10:05 PM ET USA

    Your point is well taken. It seems that Bishop McCormack should have been made to resign years ago. At the same time, we commit a logical fallacy every time we attack the person, and not the argument. As one of your commenters noted, Bettencourt should have argued this issue strictly on its own merits, and talked about the Catholic teaching on subsidiarity.

  • Posted by: gcreel5531 - Apr. 13, 2011 11:19 AM ET USA

    An excellent temperate, rational article on the intemperate behavior of a bishop, his detractor and their respective supporters.

  • Posted by: qcuinne8582 - Apr. 13, 2011 5:58 AM ET USA

    He should have been removed with Cardinal Law, and both left as assistant chaplain in a convent of Carmelite nuns.

  • Posted by: Steve214 - Apr. 08, 2011 6:35 PM ET USA

    Great article. Betrayal has consequences--presumably eternal consequences. No, I'm not talking about where the Bishop will go: he is only one soul. Even one soul is of great importance, but not when compared with the hundreds of souls that the Bishop's heartless neglect may have endangered!

  • Posted by: GabrielAustin9013 - Apr. 08, 2011 3:50 PM ET USA

    There is a widespread misunderstanding that the Holy Father has some kind of magic wand with a wave of which he can remove priests and bishops. The process is long, especially for bishops. Consider only that the Holy Father is himself a bishop, primus inter pares - first among equals.

  • Posted by: Gaby - Apr. 08, 2011 10:10 AM ET USA

    I'm glad to hear Bettencourt is a serious Catholic & not an anti-Catholic bigot, but that just makes his outburst & initial refusal to apologize all the more puzzling. A serious Catholic should never insult ANYONE that way, but most especially a bishop. I can understand his saying that in an outburst of anger, but refusing to apologize after the fact, when he's regained a calm, clear head & fellow Catholics have expressed their outrage, is inexcusable. I'm glad he finally came to his senses.

  • Posted by: Dan - Apr. 08, 2011 10:01 AM ET USA

    Bettencourt could have refuted the bishop's claims on the merits. Subsidiarity and solidarity tightly circumscribe state intervention re: welfare. The tired "social justice" school is easily discredited by Catholic social teaching. The bishop may very well deserve the opprobrium, and perhaps a vocal and persistent opposition to his appointment would have chastened both him and the Vatican by now, but Bettencourt undermines his position on both issues by conflating them.

  • Posted by: mamato085337 - Apr. 08, 2011 7:47 AM ET USA

    The real moral of the story is, why did not the Vatican remove this Bishop? I wonder if Pope Benedict even knows about it and, if not, who isn't telling him? I believe the Pope would remove him if he knew.

  • Posted by: Cornelius - Apr. 08, 2011 7:24 AM ET USA

    Sorry, I'm on Bettencourt's side, tout court. Had he not used such forceful language we wouldn't be discussing this. His "two words" drew needed attention to an Emperor's stark nakedness and hypocrisy. It's about time someone called a spade a spade. Bettencourt's only error was in apologizing - he should have repeated his epithets - and the Bishop should have been run out of town on a rail.

  • Posted by: qcuinne8582 - Apr. 08, 2011 4:36 AM ET USA

    Why was this man not removed long ago?

  • Posted by: Hal - Apr. 07, 2011 6:32 PM ET USA

    Great job! Well said!

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