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Ex-priest's accusers tell of the damage

By Linda Matchan, Globe Staff, 6/8/1992

 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
he range of transgressions seemed almost infinite. It is alleged that between 1960 and 1967, James R. Porter, then a Massachusetts priest, sexually assaulted dozens and possibly hundreds of children in numerous locations: the church rectory, the sacristy, the beach, his car, the church camp, school, even the children's homes.

More than 50 men and women have identified themselves as victims of the former priest, and have described an assortment of lurid offenses, ranging from fondling to masturbation to sex games to rape. For some, it was a one- time assault that was over in seconds. For others, the molestations and rapes allegedly recurred -- in some cases, numerous times.

No matter what the nature of the alleged encounters, many accusers who are now, 30 years later, in their 30s and 40s say their lives have been profoundly changed by abuse at the hands of the former priest. Before Porter left the priesthood, he was transferred twice within the Fall River Diocese. Now living in Minnesota, he is married with four children.

In tape-recorded conversations with one of his accusers, a man identified as Porter has admitted that he molested a number of boys and girls while a priest in Massachusetts. Porter has declined Globe requests for an interview. Cardinal Bernard Law has asserted that the alleged abuse is an "aberrant act" and has decried news coverage of the matter, saying the news media have "covered this story irresponsibly to paint all the clergy in a negative way."

Many of those who allege they were Porter's victims in Massachusetts live outwardly successful professional and personal lives. But they acknowledge certain common struggles they attribute to their alleged encounters with the former priest, who they assert provided a horrifying sexual initiation for them at a vulnerable stage of their lives. Many of the victims -- most of whom were male -- said the experience destroyed their faith in the Catholic church.

Many speak of tortured childhoods with lingering guilt for the sin of having sex with a priest, whom they had been taught to believe was God's emissary on earth. Some describe problems with substance abuse, sexual difficulties, hospitalizations, broken marriages and suicide attempts. Some who allege sexual abuse by Porter report less dramatic effects but believe that their experience affected their ability to trust other adults, particularly those in positions of authority; others say that it affected career choices and work styles.

"A lot have become workaholics and perfectionists, as though trying to protect themselves from having something ever happen to them again," said Frank Fitzpatrick, a Cranston, R.I., private investigator, who said he was molested at age 12 by Porter. Fitzpatrick became obsessed with the alleged molestations by Porter and, using his professional skills, tracked down Porter in Minnesota and said he spoke to him by telephone.

"Many of us have been successful in our chosen careers," said a man from North Attleborough who was one of the nine men and women who were first to come forward publicly last month to tell of the alleged assaults. "But one thing it's fair to say is that the struggle, the anger, the pain, the frustration may well have curtailed some people's potential. It's something we'll never know."

Following are the stories of four of Porter's accusers.

A STRONG CONNECTION

Joe, 37, will never know to what extent his problems started with the sexual assaults, although he contends there is a strong connection.

This he does know: Until he was 12, he led "a very normal, happy childhood," an observation corroborated by his mother. He went fishing with his father, played Little League, had lots of buddies. "I felt safe," he said, "up until what happened."

He said he became involved with Porter in 1967 after a friend introduced them at a public beach near Joe's home. The former priest sat down on his beach blanket, Joe said, and put his hand down his swimsuit.

"That was my first sexual rendezvous," he said sardonically. Three more alleged incidents followed: once when Porter invited Joe into the basement of St. James Church, undressed him and ejaculated against his buttocks; once when he forced him to perform oral sex in his car; and once when he came to Joe's home to visit his family, asked to see Joe in his bedroom and forced the boy to massage him even as his parents sat in the kitchen of their small bungalow.

He said it was not just the sex that distressed him, but the guilt of what later followed. When Porter left St. James Church under mysterious circumstances in 1967, Joe was told by his family that Porter had suffered a nervous breakdown. Applying a 12-year-old's logic to the circumstances, Joe concluded that he himself was a sinner.

"I not only had sex with a priest, but I caused him to have a nervous breakdown," Joe said. "This was the guilt, the shame, the fear I'd burn in hell. I thought that I must deserve it. Why would God do this if I didn't deserve it?"

He told nobody about his fears, and slipped gradually into depression. His school grades deteriorated and attendance became erratic. He began using marijuana and hallucinogens, sometimes in combination with alcohol, because they "numbed the pain." He secluded himself in his parents' basement and exhibited "self-destructive behavior," punching out windows and displaying a hair-trigger temper.

In his senior year of high school, he finally told his parents about the alleged abuse by Porter and they encouraged him to get psychiatric help. But he rarely strayed far from his parents' basement and with the exception of the brief period between the ages of 19 and 22, when he held a steady job, played in a band and had a girlfriend, his life history has been marked by what he terms "a long, uphill battle." He has been hospitalized eight times for his depressive and phobic disorders.

He has lived since 1987 at a treatment center for emotionally disturbed people, and feels he is finally making progress with some of his problems, though he believes "I will be on medication for the rest of my life, and I'll be paranoid the rest of my life." He added: "I don't think I'll ever step foot in a church again."

A question that plagues him is how different his life would have been had Porter not stepped onto that beach. "Maybe I'd be borderline today," he said. "But one thing for sure, he kicked it off." He said he is telling his story because he wants an apology from the church and to make sure Porter is prosecuted.

"He made me hide all these years," said Joe. "Now it's his turn to hide."

KEEPS VIVID MEMORIES

He used to think it never affected him, even though he has retained vivid memories of the three occasions on which Father Porter allegedly molested him when he was a 10-year-old altar boy and student at St. Mary's Church and Grammar School in North Attleborough.

He remembers the priest's charisma, the way he boasted to children about his athletic prowess, and his yellow fingers because he "smoked like a fiend." He remembers the precise shade of red and the texture of the rug that he lay upon in the church office when he was wrestled to the ground, and the "forceful" way in which Porter allegedly held his hands behind his back and raped him.

He remembers being confused about what had happened and feeling as though he were to blame. After all, he reasoned, he allowed himself to be molested on three occasions. He also recalls being puzzled that no one attempted to stop Porter. He distinctly remembers that, at one point, the local pastor was "knocking on the door and saying 'I told you not to be in there with kids.' "

Until recently, he never felt the experience impacted on the quality of his life. He has married, has two children, and a rewarding career. But 32 years later, the social worker says he views it all differently. "What happened to me has affected every aspect of my life, in my judgment," said the man, who has asked that his name not been used.

About two years ago, he began receiving therapy because he was having difficulty at work, becoming "enraged . . . when rules weren't followed or someone was getting around the rules." He was having problems in his marriage.

Today, he attributes these problems to his alleged encounters with Porter and describes, above all, a feeling of betrayal by the priest.

There is anger in his voice when he talks about how "infuriated" he is today that he has not "seen any contrition on the part of the church." Indeed, he is livid about a letter he received last September from Cardinal Bernard Law. He had written to the cardinal to ask for a personal meeting and to say he believed the church had an obligation to pay for victims' treatment. But in a return letter dated Sept. 5, 1991, the cardinal replied that North Attleborough "is not within the Archdiocese of Boston but rather in the Diocese of Fall River."

"It would be more much appropriate" the cardinal wrote, if the man contacted authorities there.

"Am I shattered? No," he said. "Have I been affected? Profoundly, in the quality of my life. I lost my religion, faith, and ability to trust adults and institutions." Now, he said, that trust is "hard-earned."

NUNS NEVER NOTICED

Judy White Mullett still cannot figure out why the nuns at St. Mary's School in North Attleborough never noticed that she and her girlfriend always "kept our rear ends to the wall" whenever Porter was in the same room. "He was always rubbing us. We would stand up against the wall whenever we saw him coming."

She, like others in the parish, had mixed feelings about the priest. He was "wonderful, and everyone loved him," she said. That's partly why, at the age of 10 or 11, she obligingly went along with him one day to the rectory, where he shocked her by inserting his fingers into her vagina.

She said she never "got in that position again," and never told her parents because "you just didn't in those days, especially in a Catholic place," and because Porter told her that she had done something wrong. "He told us we couldn't let anyone know because God would punish us if we did."

She did tell two girlfriends, though, because she knew that Porter "had gotten" them, too. But none of them really dwelled on it. "I guess we just lived with it," said Mullett, now the mother of two. "We all protected each other."

She said she moved out of North Attleborough after high school, and did not think much about the incident until she moved back to her hometown a few years ago when her 10-year marriage was failing. She was having "sexual problems," she said. Now that she has been in therapy, she is convinced that these problems were the emotional fallout from betrayal by her parish priest.

"I never thought about it until my marriage fell apart," said Mullett. "But if you can't trust your priest, who can you trust?"

RECALLS VAGUE EPISODES

Michael Vigorito, a North Attleborough dentist, prefers not to discuss the details of the alleged molestation that he said took place when he was in the sixth grade at St. Mary's School. He can remember two and "possibly more" vague episodes that did not involve intercourse and which he described as "in some ways, frightening." Even at the time, he wondered if they had really happened since it all seemed so strange and unreal. Though he had not had any formal sex education, he sensed it "wasn't right," but still it didn't add up. "We were brought up that the priests . . . were the next thing to God on earth."

Particularly odd was his recollection that Porter liked to molest groups of boys in a favored form of molestation he describes as "doggie humping. He'd get everyone wrestling -- 12-year-old boys like to wrestle. . . . When we'd look over, he'd be ejaculating." He added: "I know for a fact he got 50 percent of the kids in every class."

Yet when talk got around town that a local priest had been sexually abusing children and Vigorito's father asked him if he had been a victim, "I denied it," he said. "I was embarrassed. And in some way, I liked the man. Everyone would go nuts when he came. . . . He was like the Pied Piper."

Vigorito acknowledges he is still "sorting out" the effect the experience had on him. There are some consequences he feels are directly related. "As a young adult, I became very angry to feel I was taken advantage of. If I'd seen him again, I'd have knocked his teeth out." Even today, "When I feel that someone is backing me into a corner and I feel violated, emotionally or whatever, a tremendous rage sweeps inside me."

A few years ago, he suffered a depression related to other problems in his life, and he turned for help to a priest, because he felt he needed spiritual guidance. He said the priest "saved my life" by teaching him forgiveness. He asserts that he is not angry at Porter, nor does he seek revenge. "I realize he is a sick person."

But Vigorito has emerged from the experience committed to working with other accusers to bring about Porter's prosecution and to encourage church officials and others "to end this denial, admit mistakes and prevent this from ever happening again.

Last week, he wrote a letter to express his thoughts about the Porter affair. It was intended for "anybody who will listen."

"We cannot undo the past," he wrote, "but with cooperation, we will make positive changes to protect children and thereby salvage something decent from this tragedy. I hope that all who are suffering will one day find forgiveness in their hearts and peace in their minds."

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 6/8/1992.
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