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New Fall River bishop vows early action on Porter case

By Linda Matchan, Globe Staff, 8/12/1992

 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
ALL RIVER -- Losing no time in addressing the issue of sexual molestation by a former priest, the newly installed bishop of the Fall River Diocese said yesterday that resolving the matter will be a top priority, and promised the diocese would pay for therapy for the scores of alleged victims.

At a press conference following his installation at the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption in Fall River, Bishop Sean Patrick O'Malley said that even though it would be "very hard" to determine the facts of the case and the church's role in it 30 years after the alleged molestations took place, he was nonetheless committed to learning the truth as quickly as possible.

"I understand there are records," he said. "I hope to see them . . . I understand that records have already been turned over to the courts."

The Fall River Diocese has been embroiled in controversy since May, when the first of what has become more than 70 men and women began coming forward to say that former priest James R. Porter had sexually abused them while he served at three churches in the Fall River diocese between 1960 and 1967. There have been indications from alleged victims and their families that church officials were aware of Porter's activities but failed to keep him away from children. Alleged victims and their relatives also have charged that the Fall River church officials failed to warn church officials in New Mexico and Minnesota, where Porter moved after 1967 to seek treatment and work as a priest.

In the last few weeks, several people have said they were molested by Porter in those states, too.

Asked whether the diocese would pay for the psychological treatment for the alleged victims in Fall River -- a request that the diocese has so far declined to address -- Bishop O'Malley replied, "Of course."

Bishop O'Malley also indicated that he would meet personally with the alleged victims.

His candor and receptiveness to the issue of sexual abuse within the priesthood -- he offered to meet, too, with members of the press -- contrasts sharply with the position of the diocese taken recently in an editorial in The Anchor, the Fall River Diocese's newspaper.

In a July 31 editorial, the newspaper was highly critical of media coverage of the issue. It stated that "because of admitted difficulties involving a very few clergy, the media propose to alter the church's way of functioning. Misleading information, half-truths and insinuations have permeated practically every newspaper story concerning cases of clergy misconduct."

Bishop O'Malley seemed to acknowledge that a full investigation of the Porter issue had not yet been undertaken by the diocese. But he defended the diocesan authorities, saying that the Porter case "came up at a very difficult time in the diocese," when there was no bishop in place. The Fall River diocese has been without a bishop since Daniel A. Cronin became archbishop of Hartford in December.

"People were in charge here on an interim basis," Bishop O'Malley said. "It wasn't possible to deal with the problem more quickly."

He said that while he has not yet met with "the principals" involved, he has meetings planned on the Porter matter this week, and hopes a resolution of the case will come "as soon as possible."

Asked whether priests who are pedophiles should be criminally prosecuted like other child molesters, Bishop O'Malley replied, "I think priests who go through red lights should get tickets. There should be no immunity just because they are priests."

In his homily delivered in a folksy and informal style during the installation ceremony at the cathedral, Bishop O'Malley also addressed the victims and their concerns.

"With Christ's love the churchcan be about the task of healing and reconciliation, can reach out to the victims of child abuse and say: We love you with Christ's Love. We will not turn a deaf ear to your cry. We ask forgiveness and we want to help you to forgive so that you will be free and so that we can be one with you. The road will not be easy, but we will travel it together."

In attendance were three cardinals -- Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, Cardinal James Hickey, archibishop of Washington, D.C.; and Cardinal William Baum, Prefect of Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education at the Vatican -- more than 40 New England bishops and approximately 300 priests as well as representatives of various dioceses, parishes, schools and invited guests.

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 8/12/1992.
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