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Porter said to have told pope of abuse

Issue was central in plea to leave priesthood

By Stephen Kurkjian, Globe Staff, 10/24/1992

 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
n an extraordinary document, James R. Porter admitted to the Vatican and Pope Paul VI in 1973 that he had molested youths at churches in Massachusetts and four other states and believed that he had been able to avoid detection because he was a priest, according to sources who have examined the document.

Writing to the Vatican in an attempt to gain permission to leave the priesthood, Porter stated that he had sexually assaulted youths at eight Catholic churches since becoming a priest in 1960, the sources said.

"I know in the past I used to hide behind a Roman collar, thinking that it would be a shield for me," Porter wrote in a four-page affidavit that accompanied the statement, the sources said. "Now there is no shield. I know that if I become familiar with children, people would immediately become suspicious."

Porter, indicted in Bristol County last month on 46 counts of sexual molestation, wrote to the Vatican 2 1/2 years after being suspended as a priest by the Fall River Diocese. Having led the life of a layman during those 2 1/2 years, Porter wrote, he had been able to control his periodic urges to molest children, the sources said.

Although he said that he was embarrassed and ashamed that his past acts had brought dishonor to the church, Porter did not express any regret for having molested the children, the sources said. Also, according to victims at several parishes, there is no indication the Vatican or the several bishops and other Catholic officials who were aware of Porter's confession ever advised parents that Porter had assaulted youths in their churches.

Porter signed the petition on May 17, 1973, and formally submitted it to the Vatican later that summer. After it was recommended for approval by Vatican officials, Pope Paul VI formally allowed the petition on Jan. 5, 1974, the sources said. Vatican scholars said that the pope does not routinely read such petitions but receives a detailed briefing on their contents.

The pope's decision ended Porter's 14-year career in the priesthood and allowed him to begin a private life as a bank officer in suburban St. Paul, where he still lives with his wife and four children. That privacy was shattered last May when a group of his alleged victims in North Attleborough came forward.

In the ensuing months, Porter has been indicted in Minnesota and Massachusetts for molesting youths and sued by other alleged victims in civil court in New Mexico and Minnesota. He has also been accused of molesting a girl who babysat for his children in 1987. A Minnesota judge yesterday refused to dismiss criminal sexual conduct charges in the case.

The publicity surrounding the Porter case has led several Catholic dioceses to reform their policies in dealing with such allegations. The dioceses, including the one in Fall River which had jurisdiction over Porter, now intend to move more quickly and more forcefully when priests are accused of sexual abuse and to demonstrate more compassion for victims and their families.

"I think the Porter case represents the low water mark for the Catholic Church and has exposed how poorly the church has treated cases like this," said Rev. Thomas Doyle, an Army priest and recognized scholar on the canons that guide the Catholic Church.

"The primary consideration in dealing with cases like these has always been keeping the affair as quiet as possible. The parents and victims in these cases were more or less ignored," said Rev. Doyle.

Quoting from Porter's diocesan personnel records, the Globe reported on Wednesday that Fall River Bishop James L. Connolly had allowed Porter to continue working as a temporary or fill-in priest at several parishes in Massachusetts, New Mexico and Minnesota even though he knew Porter had a history of molesting altar boys and other youths.

According to the records, Connolly suspended Porter on at least two occasions after learning that he had been accused of molesting children at the churches. But after the initial suspension, Connolly allowed Porter to resume his duties on the advice of a psychiatrist.

In his 20-page statement, addressed to "Most Holy Father," Porter recounted his life in the priesthood, beginning with his ordination in 1960, said the sources. He said he had decided to become a priest during his junior year at Boston College when a friend suggested he seek an interview with Bishop Connolly in Fall River. Connolly was in need of priests at the time and, upon reflection, Porter decided that he had always been concerned with the spiritual welfare of people.

Following four years at St. Ann's Seminary in Baltimore, Porter was ordained as a Catholic priest and assigned to St. Mary's Church in North Attleborough. However, after more than three years in the parish, Porter said, it became known that he had become "homosexually involved" with "some of the youth" of the parish, the sources said, quoting from Porter's statement.

The use of the term "homosexually involved" is the most explicit used by Porter in his statement to the pope about his alleged acts of molestation, the sources stated. Throughout the rest of the report, he writes either that he had "lapsed" or "fallen" into his past "problems" or that he had experienced "the same difficulty," the sources said.

Referring to the priesthood, Porter wrote that he would always use it "as a protection and means to feed my sickness and trouble," the sources said.

In the written statement and an accompanying affidavit, Porter admitted that his memory of events may not be precise since he had undergone electroshock therapy following his first suspension by Bishop Connolly in 1963, the sources said.

In fact, Porter's statement differs from documents in the personnel file obtained by the Globe. Those records indicate that Bishop Connolly did not suspend Porter until 1964, after Porter had been transferred to Immaculate Conception Church in Fall River. Also, Porter's statement to the pope fails to mention that he had been caught by New Hampshire State Police and accused of assaulting a minor during the summer of 1964 and that he had been accused of molesting a 12-year-old at a summer camp in Freetown where Porter worked as a counselor in 1956.

Otherwise, Porter's statement provides the Vatican with a straightforward account of his failed attempts to be a faithful, pious priest in Massachusetts, Texas, New Mexico, Houston, Nevada and Minnesota.

According to the statement:

After his initial suspension, Porter's psychiatrist convinced Bishop Connolly he was well enough to return to the priesthood. However, on returning to Fall River and, later, to New Bedford churches, he quickly resumed his acts of molestation and was sent home again by Connolly.

During one of those home stays, Bishop John Sexton of St. Patrick's Parish in Stoneham took sympathy on him and allowed him to say Mass during the week. A short time later, Porter said, he was accused of molesting children again. Rev. Paul Shanley of the Boston Diocese was notified and he immediately recommended that Porter be sent to a New Mexico treatment center, run by the Servants of the Paraclete, a Catholic order.

Soon after he arrived, Porter said, the center's superior was advised by Porter's psychiatrist that his treatment should include weekend assignments in parishes. Over the next two years, Porter worked at churches around Albuquerque, apparently without incident.

However, in mid-1968, he was asked to serve on a longer basis at a Las Vegas church. He agreed but after a short stint, he said, he returned to his prior practices of abusing children. He consulted a psychiatrist in Las Vegas who advised him to give up the priesthood. But Porter said he did not want to admit to himself that he could not be a priest.

He returned to the Paraclete treatment center and during the next year took assignments in Houston and Truth or Consequences, N.M. He began molesting youths at both churches, he wrote, according to the sources.

Because Paraclete officials were not told that he had molested children in Truth or Consequences, Porter was allowed to take a longer assignment in northern Minnesota in the summer of 1969.

Thirteen months later, in September 1970, two sets of parents complained to Porter's superiors at the Bemidji, Minn., church that he had sexually abused their children. Porter was quickly ordered out of the church and wound up at another Paraclete treatment center in St. Louis. There, after psychiatric counselling, Porter said, he was advised that the priesthood was at the root of his problems and that he should not be allowed to function as a priest.

Within days, Bishop Connolly was informed. He ordered Porter suspended a second time and recommended that Porter petition the Vatican to return to lay life. Nearly three years later, Porter, having moved to Minnesota, followed that suggestion and wrote to the Vatican that he be allowed to give up his priestly obligations.

As a layman, he said, he would not be able to carry on with children or be tempted by their presence. The sources said he wrote: "In the lay life, I find out of necessity that I must cope with the problem or suffer the consequences."

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 10/24/1992.
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