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Priest quits teaching job amid furor

St. Petersburg Catholic High is saying little after a student's complaint about a kiss and hug. Students say ''Father Mac'' often was affectionate in public.

By KELLY RYAN GILMER and MAUREEN BYRNE AHERN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2002


St. Petersburg Catholic High is saying little after a student's complaint about a kiss and hug. Students say "Father Mac" often was affectionate in public.

ST. PETERSBURG -- A priest at St. Petersburg Catholic High School has resigned after a female student complained that he greeted her with a hug and a kiss.

The Rev. Richard McCormick, 61, who taught theology and English, was granted a leave of absence while the complaint was investigated. Later, the school and McCormick "mutually agreed that it is in the best interest of the school community that Father McCormick not return," according to a statement by the Diocese of St. Petersburg.

The diocese and the school reported that the incident occurred at the end of the school day on March 11, as students were leaving class.

The student, whose identity was not released, said she and McCormick passed in the hallway, and McCormick asked how she was. McCormick had been her teacher before.

The student said McCormick "cupped his hands around her chin and gave her a kiss," according to a letter the school sent to parents Friday.

The kiss made the student uncomfortable, so she reported the incident the next day. The diocese was not specific about whether he kissed her head or lips.

"The school's primary concern is for the well-being of the students," the diocese statement said.

The Rev. Louis Molinelli, the school's principal, would not comment and referred all calls to the diocese communications office, which would not elaborate beyond its statement.

Students on Friday were called into an assembly in the gym at the start of school and told about McCormick's departure. Some were stunned, others were tearful. Counselors were made available for students.

In the letter that was sent to parents, Molinelli wrote:

"I ask all of you to continue to pray for our school community as we seek comfort and healing during this time. I ask that you also remember this student and her family in your prayers. Finally, please remember to pray for Father McCormick in these days."

The diocese would not say whether its investigation uncovered any wrongdoing by McCormick, or why the priest was departing.

The news of the departure came on a particularly difficult day in the diocese: Bishop Robert Lynch was defending himself against an accusation that he had sexually harassed an employee who has since left.

McCormick, known by many as "Father Mac," was well-liked at St. Petersburg Catholic, which is at 6333 Ninth Ave. N. Some students said it would not be unusual for McCormick to be affectionate in public.

"We all know that Father Mac loves us and cares for us and would never do anything to hurt us or to make us feel uncomfortable in any way," said Katie Waechter, 15, president of the sophomore class.

"Father Mac always comes up to me and gives me a kiss on my forehead and says, 'How are you doing?' And I just think it was the same thing and she didn't know how to react to it."

Waechter said it was unfair that McCormick, who she said cracked jokes and made students feel good about themselves, had to leave.

Marina Secord, a sophomore, said she and many other students were sad and confused about McCormick's departure.

"He was the happiest person I've ever known. That's just how he is," Secord said. "I was really close to him. He was one of my really good friends. I could talk to him about anything."

Students' parents had mixed reactions to Friday's announcement.

Susan Sharlow, parent of a sophomore and a junior, said she is certain that McCormick's affection for his students was fatherly and harmless. But Sharlow also does not think the school overreacted.

"How can you overreact in light of what's going on right now?" Sharlow said. "It's a lose-lose situation for the church, because we can't underreact and not give credibility to a child. We have to listen to children."

McCormick, a member of the Salesian Society religious order, could not be reached for comment Friday. He had taught at the school since 2000, after he moved to St. Petersburg from Massachusetts.

In Boston, he had been the director of an all-male Catholic high school that closed in 1998 because of financial troubles and declining attendance.

According to St. Petersburg Catholic's Web site, McCormick taught freshman theology, senior theology and junior literature. The Web site also says McCormick has a bachelor's degree from Don Bosco College and a master's degree in education from Boston College.

For his class mission on the Web site, McCormick wrote: "My personal hopes are to broaden the vision of one's mind, to foster greater clarity of truth in the heart, to promote an eagerness for deeper knowledge, maybe even to pique one's curiosity and a sense of wonder."

-- Staff writer Mike Brassfield and researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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