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New bishop reaches out to the abused

By Don Aucoin, Globe Staff, and Luz Delgado, Contributing Reporter, 6/17/1992

 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
oving to confront a wrenching issue in his new diocese and among Catholics statewide, the incoming bishop of Fall River yesterday promised help to the people who say they were sexually abused by a priest in the 1960s.

"To those who were victimized, the Catholic community wants to respond to your needs in the best way possible," said Bishop Sean Patrick O'Malley, who was appointed to the post by Pope John Paul II.

"People see the priest as a man committed to holiness, to love and the service of the community," Bishop O'Malley said at a news conference. "And when this trust is betrayed, we know that great harm is done."

Bishop O'Malley, 43, did not say specifically yesterday what help the diocese would offer to the alleged victims of James Porter, a former priest who is said to have raped or molested dozens of young boys and girls in Fall River more than two decades ago.

But three alleged victims said last night they are heartened by the sign that the new leadership of the diocese -- which has been without a bishop since December, before the Porter allegations came to light -- is acknowledging their pain.

"It really gives me a lot of hope that the church, obviously the Vatican, is taking everything very seriously," said Dennis Gaboury of Baltimore, who alleges Porter raped him several times beginning when Gaboury was 9 years old. "It really is great news."

"I'm thrilled that hopefully . . . this appointment, and the fact that he's so young . . . in conjunction with his apparent understanding of the situation, really is going to help us, all the victims and survivors," Gaboury said. "One of our goals is to have the church recognize what has happened."

But Gaboury stressed that Porter's alleged victims still want to know what Bishop O'Malley will specifically do to begin the healing process. "Although his words are healing, the actions that follow will be the real statement," he said. "That will determine our efforts in the future. We as a group are very determined to seeing that this never again happens to a child."

Patricia Kozak, 43, who alleges she was sexually abused by Porter at the church rectory in North Attleborough about three times when she was 11 and 12 years old, said she hoped Bishop O'Malley's remarks would encourage other victims to come forward.

"I think he was very sensitive to us," said Kozak. "I think if someone brings forth something like this in the future, that he's a gentle and kind man and he will address it."

"Things are coming around and hopefully they're coming around to where no kids will ever by hurt like this again," she added. "A lot of people think survivors are against the church, and we're not. We're just upset about the way it was handled."

Dr. Michael Vigorito, who alleges he was sexually abused by Porter several times when he was 11 and 12 years old in a church rectory and at the Fall River Diocese's summer camp, described Bishop O'Malley's comments as a refreshing example of "the clergy coming out and telling the truth. I think that it's long overdue."

Vigorito said he was especially heartened by Bishop O'Malley's reference to lost trust. "That was probably the biggest, the worst part of the whole thing, was the trust that was broken," Vigorito said. "That's what I felt worst about."

Gaboury said he hopes Bishop O'Malley can bring true leadership to the diocese.

"I think it's very important that they have a leader there, and obviously they've selected someone who they feel can deal with this and try to start the healing process," Gaboury said. "There really was no leadership. Cardinal Law was certainly offering no leadership. He was going from one blunder to the next."

Cardinal Bernard Law, who heads the Boston Archdiocese, triggered controversy several weeks ago when he blasted the media for their coverage of the Porter case, prompting charges by some of the accusers that the cardinal was discounting their suffering.

Gaboury said Porter's alleged victims still want to see him prosecuted and hope that the church will not protect priests who are suspected of abusing children. He said the group wants the church to recognize the problem, deal with it appropriately, continue to educate people, weed pedophiles out when they're discovered and "when victims come out, treat them with the respect due to them."

A spokesman for the Fall River diocese said last night that Bishop O'Malley decided he had to address the Porter controversy immediately.

"It was a major issue that any new bishop coming into the diocese would have to face," said Rev. John Moore, director of communications in the diocese. "He wanted to make a statement of general support for all who have been hurt by this, not only the victims but also the priests who are carrying a very heavy burden."

Father Moore said that in addition to expressing empathy with Porter's alleged victims, Bishop O'Malley was sending a signal to priests who feel unjustly stigmatized by the charges swirling around Porter.

Bishop O'Malley has served in the Virgin Islands for the past eight years, where he founded two Catholic television stations, a diocesan newspaper, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, a program serving pregnant teen-agers, and a hospice for the terminally ill.

Appointed bishop of the Fall River diocese by Pope John Paul II earlier this week, Bishop O'Malley will return to the Virgin Islands before his formal installation as bishop of Fall River on Aug. 11.

Bishop O'Malley's statement was issued against a backdrop of local and national controversy over sexual misconduct in the priesthood.

Rocked by criticism that it failed to remove a priest accused of sexually mistreating children in three parishes, the Archdiocese of Chicago commissioned a panel that recommended Monday that students at Roman Catholic seminaries should be screened for tendencies toward child molesting, and that priests who molest children should never be allowed to return to their parishes.

Officials at dioceses across the country yesterday said there are guidelines in place to deal with episodes of sexual abuse by priests. They said the guidelines call for immediate suspension of the priest while the allegations are investigated.

But none of the dioceses specifically prohibit a priest's return to the parish where he abused children -- though officials said such a return would be highly unlikely -- and screening for pedophilia in seminaries is not part of the policy statement of the US Catholic Conference, which most dioceses follow.

In the Archdiocese of Boston, as in most other dioceses contacted yesterday, seminary students undergo psychological evaluations that examine "psychosexual elements of their personalities," according to spokesman John Walsh.

A priest found to have sexually abused a youngster generally "would not be placed back into a situation that would create difficulties for children or parishioners," Walsh said, though he said an office job for the priest in the parish might not be precluded.

In the Archdiocese of Providence, largely in response to a case in the mid- 1980s in which a priest was convicted of molesting two teen-age boys, written guidelines spell out that anyone who suspects sexual abuse by a priest is to immediately report it to the priest's superior, who then is to contact Auxiliary Bishop Kenneth Angell, according to diocesan spokesman William Halpin.

If sexual misconduct by a priest is alleged, the priest is immediately removed from the parish and placed on a leave of absence while an investigation is launched by Bishop Angell, Halpin said.

"We've all gotten smarter in the last 10 years," said Halpin. "As we gain new knowledge and understanding we're able to deal with these things in a straightforward way."

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 6/17/1992.
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