Anguised cries fell on deaf ears
Despite evidence, church muffled charges that Rev. Porter sexually abused children
This story was reported and written by Linda Matchan, Don Aucoin and Stephen Kurkjian of the Globe staff.
Her son, a 12-year-old altar boy, had just confided that he had been sexually molested. Even more shocking was the identity of the alleged molester: Rev. James R. Porter, the young and dynamic priest at St. Mary's Church and Grammar School.
Enraged, the mother hastened to the parish rectory to alert Porter's superior, Rev. Edward Booth, and fellow priest, Rev. Armando Annunziato, and to plead for help. "I said he was molesting little boys," she recalls, "and I said 'I want him out of here, quick. There is no way I am going to receive communion from that man's dirty hands.' "
But the woman said in an interview with the Globe that her entreaties were rebuffed by the two priests. She said Father Booth informed her that Father Porter was receiving "treatment" for his problem, and there would be no need to remove him from the church. She said Father Booth demanded: "What are you trying to do, crucify the man?" Four years later, church officials sent Porter to a New Mexico treatment center for priests with substance abuse addictions.
She turned to other parish parents, telling them of her discovery in frantic phone calls. But she found no one -- not even her husband -- would believe her.
The anguished, unheeded calls for help by the North Attleborough mother were not the only reports that church officials and parents received about Porter during his seven-year tenure as a priest in three parishes in the Fall River diocese. Church officials have said that at various times they witnessed Porter's assaults or were told of them by children or parents, yet they still allowed him easy access to children as a supervisor of altar boys and through involvement in church-sponsored youth activities, according to Globe interviews and accounts given to private investigators.
Nor did church authorities or parents relay the reports of alleged abuse to police: Police chiefs in the three communities where Porter worked say they have no record of complaints about the priest.
On the contrary, members of North Attleborough's Catholic community apparently idolized the strapping young priest who engaged their children in church sports, took them on outings and visited their houses. Newspaper records from the period indicate that Father Porter received honors from the town for community activity, even as he was allegedly engaged in an assault on parish children.
Globe interviews with alleged victims of Porter, their families, town residents and a former high-ranking official in the diocese suggest that even though church officials were aware of the allegations, their only formal responses were moving him from parish to parish and arranging for Porter to receive therapy, which apparently included shock treatments, long after many children had allegedly been molested.
Less formally, Porter's fellow priests reportedly were forced to resort to awkward stratagems to try to thwart Porter, such as knocking on the door when Porter closeted himself with youngsters, and spying on him at the beach where he allegedly searched for new victims.
Nearly three decades later, it is difficult to understand why an entire community left its children in harm's way even as reports of molestation were so prevalent. Porter himself, who now lives in Oakdale, Minn. and has a family, has expressed astonishment that he wasn't questioned earlier by authorities.
"I'm surprised nobody spotted it," Porter said in a tape-recorded conversation with Frank Fitzpatrick, a Rhode Island private detective who says he was molested as a youth by Porter. "When it finally came out, naturally I was hiding behind the cloth."
How he continued for so long is all the more remarkable considering how brazen Porter is said to have been. Victims said in interviews with the Globe that Porter, evidently titillated by the risk of discovery, sexually molested boys and girls in their own homes, on the beach, in the churchyard, and even on the church altar. One male victim recalled being molested beneath an outdoor statue of the Virgin Mary. A woman told of being fondled by Porter inside the confessional booth.
Officials of the Fall River diocese refused to discuss the controversy with the Globe, citing possible legal action. An attorney for the diocese did not return telephone calls.
One of the priests who served with Porter, who asked not to be identified, denied that he was ever told of sexual abuse by Porter. "No one, child or parent, ever spoke to me, I can tell you that," the priest said yesterday.
An explanation for the church's inaction seems to lie in a web of religious and social factors rooted in the absence of a firm policy for dealing with allegations of sexual abuse among priests, the social taboo 30 years ago against addressing sexual perversion or even discussing sexual activity in the home, and the church's near-immunity from criticism in the communities where Porter worked.
"The priest was God," said the North Attleborough mother who asked not to be named to protect the identity of her son. She has since moved out of state. "I felt I was fighting the whole town."
Thirty years later, the allegations retain a particular resonance in Massachusetts, with the Catholic Church in turmoil over the guilty plea last week by a Shelburne Falls priest to charges of touching youths, and the indictment of a Hingham priest on charges he raped an altar boy 10 years ago.
The Bristol district attorney's office is investigating the allegations against Porter to determine whether the case warrants a grand jury review.
A case study
Today, as more such cases come to light in Massachusetts and elsewhere, the Porter case is seen by many as a cautionary case study. It exemplifies the ease with which an entire diocese can be paralyzed into a conspiracy of silence and the emotional devastation that can result from that paralysis.
So far, 62 men and women have identified themselves as victims of Father Porter, and there could be as many as 100, according to the attorney representing several of them, Roderick MacLeish Jr. Many of Porter's accusers have struggled through adulthood with emotional problems, suicide attempts, failed relationships and battles with substance abuse they attribute to their alleged encounters with the young priest.
The steps taken by church authorities reflect a well-intentioned if ineffective effort to wrestle with the problem that Porter allegedly presented them. They transferred him to Fall River in 1963, after three years in North Attleborough, apparently hoping that a stronger-willed pastor would be able to monitor him.
When the reports of abuse continued, he was transferred to St. James parish in New Bedford, where priests were reportedly instructed to keep him away from children because they said he had a "problem with boys." He was assigned to St. Luke's Hospital.
But when Porter was found to be cruising New Bedford beaches and Little League games purportedly for his young victims, he was finally ordered to seek treatment at a rehabilitation center the church maintained for alcoholics and drug abusers in New Mexico.
Although Porter was treated for two years at the center, his rehabilitation was apparently not sufficient for the church. In 1969, over his objections, Porter said the church expelled him from the priesthood, an extraordinary action at the time.
New church policy
However, those steps came only after repeated parents' warnings and direct reports by church personnel that Porter was molesting youths.
Today, his accusers express frustration and anger that the church has only belatedly begun to formulate policies to deal with sexual offenders. It was not until 1988 that the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued guidelines for dealing with sexual abuse charges in the priesthood, which includes the immediate placement on administrative leave of any priest accused of sexual misconduct, an offer of psychological counseling for the accusers and their families, and cooperation with legal authorities investigating the allegations. None of these stipulations were in place three decades ago, but the accusers wonder why common sense did not prevail.
"Why did they allow it to happen again and again and again?" demands John Robitaille, who alleges Father Porter molested him in North Attleborough. "Why did they send him from parish to parish so he would have a fresh crop of young boys and girls to victimize?"
"All these victims in Fall River and New Bedford -- they never should have happened. It was known . . . They were just kind of hoping he would stop it, with no basis for it," lamented Peter Calderone, who said Father Porter molested him numerous times.
In retrospect, the inaction is striking in light of how often and how pointedly church authorities were made aware of the possibility of molestation.
"I look back now and think how fortunate I am that I didn't get creamed . . . by a parent, by the law," Porter said in a tape-recorded conversation when Fitzpatrick confronted him in 1990.
Responded Fitzpatrick: "The thing that bothered me was that it was covered up in North Attleborough so much." Said Porter: "I think that was always the problem. They did that in a lot of places."
Examples abound of incidents in which the alleged abuse was cited:
Father Annunziato could not be reached for comment. Family members say he is recovering from illness.
Terrified, she ran to the rectory, and told Father Annunziato that there was a stranger in the church, afraid to mention the intimidating Porter by name or what she thought he might have been doing. Annunziato yelled at her to " 'stop stirring up trouble' " and slammed the door in her face. Later, Porter entered her classroom. "He came to tell the class that what I'd seen was not true, that I was lying, and I'd better tell the whole class it wasn't true," Kerte said.
By the time he got to New Bedford in 1966, Porter was making little attempt to conceal his activities from other priests, according to one accuser, who told investigators that other priests "would just turn away when Porter would pull us to him and fondle us."
Nor were the children's homes off-limits to Porter's alleged predations. One accuser in New Bedford told investigators that his father discovered Porter molesting him in the boy's bedroom, threw the priest out of the house, and went to the rectory of St. James Church to tell the other four parish priests: the pastor, Msgr. Hugh Gallagher; Rev. Edward Duffy and Rev. Thomas O'Dea; Rev. Albert Shovelton.
Unbeknownst to the father, his wife had previously complained to Monsignor Gallagher about Porter's sexual abuse of their son, but the pastor had not taken any action, the alleged victim said.
Gallagher is dead. Father Duffy and Father O'Dea refused to discuss the details of the case citing possible legal action; Father Shovelton could not be reached.
In defending how the church handled allegations against Porter, Reginald Barrette, a former priest who served as an aide to Bishop James Connolly of the Fall River Diocese during Porter's tenure there, said there was no mechanism for dealing with sexually deviant priests.
While Barrette said he has no specific memory of the Porter case, he said: "It was handled the best the bishop could handle it in those days. People are saying the church did not exercise proper care of this man . . . We were supposed to lock this fellow up in the chancery? What were we supposed to do with him?"
According to Barrette, victims should not point the finger at the church: "I blame the parents of these people who did not report it," he said.
Police Chief John D. Coyle of North Attleborough, who walked a patrol beat opposite St. Mary's School from 1954 to 1964, speculated that no parent ever reported Porter to police because "they were probably awed by the Catholic Church and the clergy. They probably thought they were doing the right thing by going to the church hierarchy rather than go to the police and have a big disgrace."
A moral failing
Specialists say the church subscribed to the prevailing belief that child sexual abuse was a moral failing best controlled by discipline, rather than a psychological addiction requiring intensive treatment and isolation from children.
Church officials evidently relied on "the geographical cure: relocate, forget, sweep under the rug," said Dayl Hufford, clinical pastoral psychotherapist at Andover Newton Theological School. "Back then we didn't have the clinical knowledge, we didn't have the road map for dealing with this kind of thing."
Rev. Stephen Rossetti of St. Lawrence Church in Chestnut Hill, the author of "Slayer of the Soul: Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church," maintains the church now has a better understanding of the problem, but is still locked into a "reactive policy."
"The whole church is wounded by this," Father Rossetti said. "When Catholics see this . . . their faith and confidence in the priesthood is wounded."
This story ran in the Boston Globe on 7/2/1992.