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Sexual abuse by priests is a 'betrayal,' 'rare,' Law says

By Kay Longcope, Globe Staff, 5/14/1992

 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
ardinal Bernard Law, in his first statement about alleged sexual abuse by a former Fall River priest, yesterday deplored "the tragedy of a priest betraying the sacred trust of priestly service."

At the end of a homily to priests celebrating their 25th anniversary of ordination, the cardinal said that "no one more than we join in the anguish of those most immediately affected by this betrayal."

However, he called priests who commit sexual acts against children and adolescents "the rare exception."

The cardinal's statement was prompted by recent charges by 45 people who said they were sexually molested by Rev. James R. Porter as children in the 1960s. Nine of those alleged victims have threatened to sue the church if it does not compensate them and help bring Porter to justice. And two have said another priest witnessed some of the alleged assaults.

Porter served parishes in North Attleborough, Fall River and New Bedford before leaving the state and the priesthood in 1967. He has refused to speak to the Globe about the allegations.

Last Thursday, a man identified as Porter in a tape-recorded conversation played on WBZ-TV (Ch.4) admitted having molested 50 to 100 children, both boys and girls, while a priest in Massachusetts.

Cardinal Law did not mention Porter by name or address the specifics of the case, but he said the church has in place "an effective policy . . . which attempts to respond to such cases in a holistic way, conscious as we are of the spiritual, moral, psychological, pastoral and legal implications that are often present."

An archdiocese spokesman told the Globe last week that the archdiocese had no written policy on handling sexual abuse complaints and had not conducted training sessions for priests or church officials on sexual misconduct.

Eric MacLeish, a Boston attorney who represents some of the complainants, said yesterday that he welcomed Cardinal Law's statement of compassion toward his clients, "but I also think the church needs to recognize that, even today, this problem exists. Not everything is being done when allegations of sexual abuse surface."

According to Catholic journalist and author Jason Berry, author of "Lead Us Not Into Temptation," a soon-to-be-published book, the Roman Catholic Church since 1985 has paid more than $350 million in damages, health care and legal expenses involving cases of priests abusing children and adolescents.

"I hope that the compassion expressed by Cardinal Law is going to be followed in addressing the legal claims of my clients," MacLeish said.

In too many cases of sexual abuse of children by priests, "people are re- victimized through roadblocks, obstacles, assaults on character, and other devices frequently used to ward off legitimate claims of sexual abuse," said the attorney.

Cardinal Law apologized to priests for using yesterday's "joyful celebration" at St. John's Seminary in Brighton to address betrayals of parishioners by priests. But, he said, that occasion "is the best context in which to address the sad reality of those singular instances when the life of priestly service to which we have been called has been betrayed.

"We would be less than the community of faith and love which we are called to be, however, were we not to attempt to respond both to victim and betrayer in truth, in love and in reconciliation."

The cardinal did not elaborate on his comments about the archdiocese policy, but archdiocesan spokesman John Walsh said that "it follows closely" a 1985 policy recommendation of the US Catholic Conference of Bishops.

Those guidelines recommend immediate removal of a priest from his parish and immediate investigation of allegations, extension of pastoral care to the victim and the victim's family and, if warranted, psychiatric treatment for the priest.

Walsh said yesterday that he was unsure just when that policy was put in place at the archdiocesan level.

MacLeish said the key for victims is for church officials "to make sure that the perpetrators of abuse are prevented from having access to parishioners or children. This continues to be a problem today, not just 30 years ago. So often there is a focus on preserving the reputations of institutions rather than the needs of victims."

In the only statement issued by the church prior to the cardinal's remarks yesterday, the Fall River Diocese last Friday issued a one-paragraph news release regretting "the unfortunate manner in which allegations against a former priest have been made public." It noted that Porter has not functioned as a priest in the diocese for 21 years and said: "Since this has become a legal matter, it is not appropriate to comment further."

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 5/14/1992.
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