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Porter got Minn. post with help of retreat home

By Stephen Kurkjian, Globe Staff, 7/25/1992

 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
diocese in northern Minnesota was persuaded to accept James Porter as a priest in 1969 on the basis of a letter of recommendation from a Catholic-run halfway house which contended that while Porter had suffered moral problems from a nervous breakdown he gave "every sign" of having his problems under control.

In a letter to the Crookston Diocese, the head of a clergy retreat house said that Porter, who has been accused of sexually abusing dozens of children while a priest in Massachusetts, Minnesota and New Mexico, had suffered a nervous breakdown several years before but had shown that he had "recovered remarkably."

Rev. Peter C. Burwell, head of the Our Lady of the Snow retreat, said that while Porter had some "moral problems," they resulted from his illness, "something for which he was not really responsible."

Rev. Michael Patnode, chancellor of the Catholic diocese in Crookston, said last week that church officials had decided to accept Porter as an assistant priest at St. Philip's Church in Bemidji, Minn., on the basis of a letter from the halfway house in Nevis, Minn.

More than a dozen people, former altar boys at St. Philip's, have filed lawsuits against Porter alleging that he sexually abused them during his 13 months at the church.

The letter does not detail Porter's medical problems or that he had received treatment for sexual problems, a failure that Father Patnode criticized last week. He said that if the Crookston Diocese knew Porter had been treated for sexual abuse of children it would have likely rejected him as a priest for St. Philip's.

In his Aug. 23, 1969, letter recommending that Porter be hired as a priest by the diocese, Father Burwell said that Porter had been residing at the retreat house for two months. "Several years ago he suffered a nervous breakdown, but shows every sign of having recovered remarkably," Burwell informed Bishop Laurence A. Glenn, then head of the Crookston Diocese.

"During the throes of his illness, he did have some moral problems which were from all appearances the result of his illness, something for which he was not really responsible," Father Burwell stated.

But since Porter had recovered from his nervous breakdown, Father Burwell wrote, he "gives every sign of having former problems under control."

Before arriving at the halfway house, Father Burwell said, Porter had served as a fill-in priest at "parishes" within the Diocese of Santa Fe, "and I am told that he did very well." While a detailed chronology of Porter's years in the priesthood has yet to be released, it is believed that he resided at a treatment house in New Mexico run by the Catholic order, Servants of the Paraclete, between 1967 and 1969.

The letter provides some significant details of Porter's whereabouts and activities after 1967, when he was ordered by the Fall River Diocese to seek treatment for his sexual abuse problems at the treatment center, which is located in Jemez Springs, N.M. The Fall River Diocese, which under church rules would have had to approve all Porter's transfers, has declined to provide a chronology of Porter's tenure as a priest.

Father Patnode could not be reached to comment on the letter, a copy of which the diocese released to the Globe yesterday. Father Burwell, head of Our Lady of the Snow, a clergy retreat house in Nevis, Minn., also could not be reached for comment. The facility has been closed for several years and Burwell is no longer listed in the Offical Catholic Directory, indicating that he has either left the priesthood or is dead.

Father Patnode and attorneys for Porter's alleged victims said last week that the Nevis center was a halfway house for priests who had been treated at the Servants of the Paraclete facility in New Mexico.

The Paraclete Order has refused to make any comment on Porter's stay and whether he was allowed to fill in as a priest at local parishes while he was being treated for pedophilia at the center. However, an Albuquerque lawyer filed lawsuits yesterday on behalf of three persons who alleged they were sexually abused by Porter at a parish in Truth or Consequences, N.M., where Porter was allowed to serve as a priest in the summer of 1968, midway during his treatment at Paraclete.

Those lawsuits bring to more than 80 the number of people in Massachusetts, Minnesota and New Mexico who have claimed in recent months they were molested by Porter when they were children. Among other things, the latest lawsuits accuse Porter of performing "nonconsensual sex acts on a child in a full body cast who had recently had surgery, and who was defenseless against Porter's sexual assaults because of the full body cast."

Porter left the priesthood sometime between 1971 and 1974. In a statement issued last week through his attorney, he admitted abusing children while he was a priest, but said he stopped the abuse in 1974. He now lives with his wife and four children in a suburb of St. Paul.

Archbishop Robert Sanchez said the Archdiocese of Santa Fe was saddened and surprised by the allegations, but added that there was no indication Porter was ever assigned to the archdiocese. "The Archdiocese of Santa Fe has no record in its clergy personnel files indicating under what circumstances James Porter, who was not a priest of this archdiocese, may have been allowed to serve in Truth or Consequences, however briefly, in 1968," Archbishop Sanchez said in a statement.

Also yesterday, the incoming head of the Fall River Diocese, which had official jurisdiction over Porter's tenure as a priest and his transfers from parish to parish, issued a statement expressing sadness over the latest disclosures.

"Once again I am deeply saddened by continuing allegations concerning Mr. James Porter's criminal activities even after therapy in New Mexico," said Bishop Sean Patrick O'Malley, who is to take over next month as Fall River's bishop, in a statement. "My heart goes out to all the victims; and, although we are unable to undo the evil of the past, I pledge myself as a bishop to deal as openly and effectively as possible with this problem today."

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 7/25/1992.
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