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In Minnesota, familiar reverberations

By Linda Matchan, Globe Staff, 7/15/1992

 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
EMIDJI, Minn. -- In much the same way it happened in three communities in Massachusetts, the residents of this small resort town are reeling from the impact of James Porter, who more than 20 years ago allegedly molested children at St. Philip's parish school.

Yesterday, seven men claiming they were among Porter's victims at St. Philip's church and school in Bemidji filed lawsuits in St. Paul against Porter.

Geographically, Bemidji has little in common with North Attleborough, Fall River and New Bedford, the three communities in Massachusetts where at least 60 men and women have said they were sexually molested by Porter while he was a parish priest between 1960 and 1967.

It is a quiet, picturesque resort town set on a placid, well-stocked lake, distinguished only as the claimed birthplace of folk-lore hero Paul Bunyan.

Still, within Catholic parish life, the two dioceses where Porter served -- here and in Fall River -- shared a common, if sordid, historical bond.

Residents who remember him say that Porter arrived here in the summer of 1969, after stays at a New Mexico treatment center and a Nevis, Minn., halfway house, and promptly went about convincing families that he had the best interests of the parish children at heart. Just as in Massachusetts, Porter coached basketball and baseball teams, took altar boys on overnight outings and used his charm and enthusiasm so effectively that many church families welcomed him into their homes.

One family recalled that Porter enjoyed telling stories about growing up in Massachusetts and the time he stayed in New Mexico. But he never mentioned why he had lived in the Southwest.

Even today, Bemidji residents remember Porter as an extraordinary basketball coach and are still in awe how quickly he mobilized the school team to take the town championship in 1969.

"He was one helluva coach," said Ralph Smith, an attorney who was president of the St. Philip's School Board when Porter lived there. "He was a hard-charging, keyed-up guy."

It was Smith who ultimately demanded, along with two other parents, that Porter be removed as the church's associate priest.

And just as in Massachusetts, Porter allegedly seduced the children -- at least a dozen boys, residents say -- brazenly and at every opportunity. Margaret Dow, a local attorney who is working with Porter's accusers, including her own brother, said Porter was even known to molest boys under the table while a guest at family dinners.

"He was like one of the family, almost," said Larry Grimm, whose son Jim is one of the two men who came forward yesterday in St. Paul to announce they had been molested by Porter. "He would play the piano and the kids would sing, he'd put his seat under our table and break bread with us. This is quite a blow."

Grimm says he distinctly recalls Porter telling him that he was a former alcoholic and making a point at social gatherings of staying away from alcohol, instead drinking coffee or soft drinks "by the gallons."

Rev. Michael Patnode, chancellor for Crooksdon Diocese in Minnesota, said Monday that if diocese officials had been informed of Porter's past history of abusing children, they might not have accepted him as an associate priest in 1969.

Porter remained at St. Philip's parish for 13 months until one boy, Dan Dow, told his father, Larry, that he had been molested by the priest. Larry Dow told Larry Grimm and together the two fathers brought the allegations to the pastor of St. Philip's, Rev. W.F. Lemen. Father Lemen responded with "total disbelief," according to Grimm. Grimm and Dow then approached Smith, the school board president, with their complaints and Smith urged Father Lemen to seek the counsel of the diocese's bishop. According to Grimm, Porter was gone within a day's time.

In Massachusetts, diocese officials in Fall River had allowed Porter to be transferred twice to other parishes even though they knew he had been accused by a few parents and children of molesting youths.

The Fall River Diocese only yesterday released a statement concerning Porter. While its statement expressed "concern and compassion" for those abused by Porter, the diocese has refused to explain its transfers of him back in the 1960s.

But in Minnesota, the Crooksdon Diocese issued a public statement as soon as Porter's alleged connection to Bemidji became public. And the current pastor of St. Philip's Church, Rev. Richard Lambert, told families attending Mass last wekeend that he welcomed the opportunity to counsel anyone hurt by Porter while in Bemidji.

"We're trying at St. Philip's not to cover anything up," Father Lambert said in an interview yesterday. "Any type of excuse, sexual or verbal, is to be abhorred."

Still, the Crooksdon Diocese's overtures are of little comfort to Larry Grimm. The church "hasn't done a thing," he said, sitting on his lakeside deck, a statue of the Virgin Mary nearby. "They haven't made a very big effort at all."

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 7/15/1992.
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