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Charges from the past

Questions are catching up to ex-priest in abuse case

By David Arnold, Globe Staff, 5/20/1992

 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
AKDALE, Minn. -- Shortly after the doorbell rang, the upper half of a polyester curtain in the window overlooking the door stoop flittered, then parted, but just for a moment.

Through the "V" peered James R. Porter, 58-year-old father of four, a stalwart churchgoer, church benefactor, volunteer tutor -- and former priest in North Attleborough who allegedly molested between 50 and 100 children three decades ago.

Then the "V" closed. Not a snap shut, as if to say, "I've had enough of you reporters," but a timid folding of halves to veil him once again from the outside world and a previous life that has finally caught up with James Robert Porter.

The Porter tragedy has only losers. They are a former Roman Catholic priest who thought his past was behind him, a church that allegedly hushed the seamy business, Porter's children and wife who apparently knew nothing of the matter, and the alleged victims, who won't get a second crack at childhood regardless of the outcome of intended litigation being prepared against the Fall River Diocese.

Thirty-eight men and women have now contacted Boston lawyer Roderick MacLeish, charging they were sexually abused and raped as parochial school students and altar boys of Porter's. One was Frank Fitzpatrick of Cranston, R.I.

Fitzpatrick, 41, is a private detective when he is not adjusting insurance claims, being a father, or playing one of several musical instruments. With the help of therapy, he says, memories of encounters with Porter began to surface two years ago. So he spent five months following a scant paper trail from Porter's 1935 birth certificate in Boston to this bedroom suburb of St. Paul.

Fitzpatrick spent the next five months summoning up the courage to telephone Porter.

Unbeknownst to Porter, Fitzpatrick said, he tape-recorded the first call on Feb. 19, 1990, then three subsequent calls during the next 12 months. They are a study in Fitzpatrick's contained rage, Porter's ardent assurances in broken, nervous sentences that his problem was cured -- essentially by leaving the priesthood in 1970. Furthermore, he stressed, Fitzpatrick's concern for children in Porter's home and in the neighborhood was unwarranted.

"I just think to myself how I would react if, you know, anyone touched my kid," he told Fitzpatrick, trying to empathize. "I'd be so damned pissed."

He pleaded for Fitzpatrick's sympathy. "I was just hoping, you know, being the, you know, Christian that you are, you should be happy how I'm turning out."

He added: "I mean, actually, I gotta look back, how fortunate I was I didn't get creamed, creamed -- by parents, the law, anything else."

There is no indication from the church community, the police, or acquaintances in the three neighborhoods where he has lived since moving here in the early 1970s that Porter has abused children in Minnesota.

But events from 1960 to 1967 have come back at James Porter, like an assault of skeletons he tries to block with curtains. In his home, windows shut, he has literally become a prisoner of his past. His children are teased at school, outside walks are suspended indefinitely, neighbors talk in hushed tones of shock, fear. And rumors abound. Neighbors care little to nothing about the suffering of Porter. They worry for his wife and children.

"Regardless of what becomes of his legal problems, life in the Porter family has changed forever," said Marcia Guttens Monday. She lives several houses away from the Porters' $112,100 ranch home.

With the 1976 birth of Colleen, his first-born, Porter quit work as a bank teller and became a full-time homemaker. Sometimes he tutors at Transfiguration School, where principal Ted Zarembski is certain students have not been molested. Porter's wife, Verlyne, originally of South Dakota and 18 years his junior, works in the tax division of the state Department of Jobs and Training.

Porter is said to be a very strict father, quick to slap a disobedient child and seldom willing to let Colleen, 16, Sean, 12, and Erin, 11, play beyond his sight (Kevin was born last August). The family is a fixture at Transfiguration Catholic Church and donated generously to a recent rebuilding campaign.

Harold Patterson is a retired mechanic and resident of Greenway Avenue, where the Porters lived for 11 years prior to moving to a better neighborhood across town in 1987 to a newly built ranch on Hale Avenue.

"It's like the guy has spent the second half of his life protecting his children from his first self," Patterson said.

"Why did you do that kind of thing?" Fitzpatrick had asked Porter, according to the tapes.

"I don't know," Porter answered, laughing nervously.

Fitzpatrick: "Was it done to you as a child?"

Porter: "No, no. That's the thing that we finally figured out. That we don't know. But it's all taken care of."

Fitzpatrick: "Do you have anything to say to me about it?"

Porter: "What can I say?"

Porter has refused requests for interviews with the Globe. Cardinal Bernard Law has said he deplored "the tragedy of a priest betraying the sacred trust of priestly service," and called priests who commit sexual acts against children "the rare exception."

For legal reasons, the church has declined further comment.

Porter was born the younger son of Elda Groppi and William James Porter of Revere, a chemist with Mobil Oil who reared his sons in private Catholic schools and on a strict diet of church, Suffolk Avenue neighbors recall.

"The father, who sang in the choir at Immaculate Conception Church on Beach Street was an incredible disciplinarian," recalled Michael Harris, a retired shopkeeper and one of the few residents from Porter's day who still live in the area. Porter is remembered as bright, quiet, nonathletic, awkward with peers, and far more comfortable playing stickball with younger children in nearby Hill's Park.

Porter graduated in 1952 from Boston College High School, "one of our livelier classmates, noted for his uninhibited, witty sayings and good spirits," the yearbook states. He graduated from Boston College in 1956 with a bachelor's degree in mathematics, then entered St. Mary's Seminary, Baltimore, the following September.

A front-page story in a March 1960 edition of the Revere Journal announced Porter's ordination was scheduled for April 2 at the Cathedral of Mary of the Assumption in Fall River. Richard Powers, now the Journal's editor, was a sixth-grader at the time. Porter had already become notorious among youngsters for putting his hand on crotches. Powers shared the following memory with his readers last week.

"We frantically rebuked his clumsy attempts to grab our crotches . . . a sixth grade friend told me Porter had acted with him like a dog straddling a friendly leg. The only innocent one left in the Catholic school building after a basketball game, my friend escaped by hiding under a desk on the second floor while Porter stalked him."

The April 7, 1960, edition of the Evening Gazette in North Attleborough reported Porter was the new assistant pastor at St. Mary's Church on Washington Street. Mary Houston, now of Providence, had several children in the parochial school, which closed about 10 years ago. He was, she recalls, an energetic, participatory priest with disdain for the "holier than thou" airs of older priests. He was the lovable Catholic priest played by Bing Crosby in the film "Going My Way."

What Fitzpatrick, a sixth grader at the school in 1960, remembers clearest was rum-flavored mincemeat pie -- being told he and friends were going to a Celtics game, then being taken by Porter to his Revere home, served the pie, and raped. He said he knows of a dozen schoolmates also molested by Porter.

Fitzpatrick mentioned the mincemeat pie to Porter over the phone and asked, "Do you remember . . . me in particular?"

"No, I don't remember names," he answered.

"But I know one thing," Porter added. Mincemeat pie "is still my favorite. It has rum in it. It has a different flavor."

Porter started being transferred in 1963 to several churches, including parishes in Fall River and New Bedford. In 1963, the Fall River Diocese also started sending him as an outpatient to the former Wiswall Hospital in Wellesley, now the Charles River Hospital. He was given shock treatments, he told Fitzpatrick.

"They didn't work," said Porter.

A parishioner of St. James Church in New Bedford, who requested anonymity, recalled Porter in 1967 as "frightfully nervous, a guy without church responsibilities who seemed destined for a nervous breakdown."

It came later that year.

Suffering from a nervous breakdown, Porter was sent to the Jemez Springs Foundation House in New Mexico, a Catholic retreat "where we practice a holistic approach to health to help priests get back into the ministry," according to Rev. Peter Lechner, Jemez program director.

Porter maintains the ultimate cure, however, was leaving the priesthood.

"We figured out I was hiding behind the cloth," he told Fitzpatrick. He said exposure to just boys in boys schools had led to his "problem"; the cure was to enter the lay life and mix with adults and women, not just children. The church set him up with lodgings in Minnesota and an elderly woman who could help him with the transition, he told Fitzpatrick.

Then, he said, he was cured.

With therapy, Fitzpatrick slowly began uncovering his bete noir, and about two years ago became concerned that Porter might be harming other children. He wrote a three-page letter to the Fall River Diocese. He said Rev. Msgr. John Oliviera eventually responded by telephone. Porter had left the diocese and "it may be best to leave it in the hands of the Lord," Fitzpatrick said Msgr. Oliviera told him. Msgr. Oliviera has declined to comment on the matter. Fitzpatrick got no more help from the church, he said.

Using a birth certificate and voter registration information in Fall River, Fitzpatrick followed a long paper trail to Revere. Property deeds took him to Stoneham, where town records indicated Porter's father, William, had died March 25, 1975. A library search of old local newspapers led him to the short obituary -- but thorough enough to include that William was the father of "James R. of Minnesota." All it required now was a final telephone call to the Minnesota Registry of Motor Vehicles to get Porter's address.

When he eventually called, he asked first for Mrs. Porter.

Fitzpatrick nervously told her he had been molested by Porter, then asked: "Do you have any children?"

She reponded: "What does that matter?" Then she added: "I don't believe you anyway."

He asked to speak with her husband, and introduced himself as "Frank Fitzpatrick pause from North Attleborough. And what happened to me was that I just recalled some of the things that happened back in North Attleborough."

Porter: "Ya."

Fitzpatrick: "I called to alert your wife of events that occured back then.

Porter: "Oh?"

Fitzpatrick: "Yup. So. And, ah, my concern was: Have you received any treatment for your problem?"

Porter assured him he had. "That's all been taken care of years ago." His tone of voice is pastoral, assuring, as if nothing more need be said about this unpleasantness that was about to awaken skeletons.

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 5/20/1992.
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