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Priest's past is talk, lament of town

By David Arnold, Globe Staff, 5/13/1992

 In-depth
In 1992, the Rev. James R. Porter case in Fall River brought the problem of clergy abuse into the open.  
Coverage of the Porter case
ORTH ATTLEBOROUGH -- On street corners, at laundromats, in restaurants and at gasoline stations, yesterday's talk was about a former priest, alleged pedophilia and child rape, the soul of a church and the passage of time.

There was anger, much of it directed at officials of the Roman Catholic Church who decades ago apparently tried to keep a seamy matter under wraps.

But there was also sadness and sympathy -- for the alleged victims, for ex-priest James R. Porter, and for a church perhaps so hogtied by litigation jitters that it has not taken parishioners aside to talk it out, pray and share the pain.

Since last week some 45 men and women have accused Porter, now married and living in Minnesota, of sexually abusing them as children while he served parishes here, in New Bedford and in Fall River.

Many of them knew Porter when he served in St. Mary's Parish in the north end of town from 1960 to 1963 and coached sports at the parish school, which closed several years ago.

Street corners are not courts; people talk freely. But placing the blame and meting out a people's justice in the "Father Porter business," as several residents referred to the accusations, was not a simple matter.

"It's sad, first and foremost," said Dorie Monce, a full-time mother who was folding laundry at the Laundromat on Elm Street. "The man must have been feeling terribly guilty inside. But I can't blame the church. Cooks, cops, accountants and priests, there are going to be good ones and bad ones wherever you look."

Did she have sympathy for Porter?

"How do you forgive someone who doesn't say, 'I'm sorry,'?" she said.

Mary Houston was sitting nearby. She lives in Providence, but grew up here, attended St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church, and sent several of her children through the parish school. She recalled Porter as an energetic, participatory priest; he had disdain for "holier than thou" airs, she said. He was a lot like the lovable Catholic priest played by Bing Crosby in the film "Going My Way."

"Frankly, I'm not surprised the abuses were buried then. Entire subjects were taboo then," she said. Homosexuality was not openly discussed three decades ago; it's acceptance was not even considered, she said.

"One of the ironies of AIDS education is that we talk much more now about sex. We're much more comfortable with sexual vocabulary," she said.

But not the Roman Catholic Church, the launderers agreed.

The church fared less well elsewhere in town. What irked resident Charles Murphy, waiting for the light to walk at the corner of Elm and North Washington streets, was the church's rule of priesthood celibacy.

"What the hell does the institution expect a man to do with his God-given sexual energy?" asked Murphy, a retired real estate broker. "Something's bound to get miswired after years of abstinence."

One elderly resident who lives near St. Mary's -- and likewise remembers Porter fondly for his youth and energy -- subsequently abandoned the church for 20 years because it insisted on setting the rules for sexual intimacy with her husband.

"And what Porter supposedly did is 18 times worse. The hypocrite!" scolded the woman, who has since returned to the church and asked to remain anonymous. She had attended several morning Masses at St. Mary's since the accusations against Porter were made public last Thursday.

Since then, she said, there has been nary a mention of the incident except suggestions to pray for Rev. Ralph Tetrault, the current pastor of St. Mary's. Inquiries to Father Tetrault were deferred to the Fall River Diocese, whose statement last Friday said the matter was serious and being handled with compassion, but that legal considerations prohibited further comment.

Beth Hanson, standing with her daughters Liza and Melanie at a checkout counter at Almacs, said "the Porter business" has been the talk of the dinner table once the youngsters are excused.

And she was angry -- at the media for "dredging up" a 30-year-old issue, at the church for "bouncing Father Porter from one parish to the next" in an apparent effort to keep the matter quiet, at Porter for posing as the role model for holiness and goodness as he allegedly raped children, and at the world for not being what it purports to be.

"There," she laughed. "I'm feeling better already."

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 5/13/1992.
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