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Church view on Porter noted

Letter said to tell of 'persistence in evil'

By Linda Matchan and Stephen Kurkjian, Globe Staff, 10/29/1992

 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
hree years after he stepped down as bishop of Fall River, retired Bishop James L. Connolly acknowledged in a 1973 statement to the Vatican that James R. Porter had been suspended as a priest because of "his constant victimization of young boys" and depicted Porter as morally weak and resistant to rehabilitation, according to sources familiar with the statement.

"I would simply say that he presents a character of acute weakness from a moral standpoint. He is stubborn, persistent in his evil conduct. His promises mean nothing," the retired bishop wrote, according to the sources.

The statement, which sources say was contained in Porter's diocesan personnel file, appeared in an evaluation form submitted to Pope Paul VI in July of 1973 as part of a formal petition to request that Porter be dismissed as priest.

Sources say the petition also included evaluations from other priests who knew Porter and had served with him; a lengthy statement from Porter admitting to sexually assaulting youths at eight Catholic parishes since becoming a priest in 1960; and a report by a priest psychologist who had evaluated Porter.

Throughout the last 10 years of his tenure as head of the Fall River Diocese, Bishop Connolly was plagued by reports that Porter was sexually abusing children in parishes there. He reportedly wrote in his statement to the pope that Porter's actions "considerably distressed" the laity of the diocese, and that he had received letters about it. "He was in difficulty with boys in various assignments," the sources quoted Bishop Connolly as writing.

"Once he was picked up by New Hampshire State Police in an embarrassing situation. At his North Attleborough assignment he was involved with a number of boys, perhaps as many as 40," the statement continues.

Bishop Connolly, who died in 1985, did not say in his statement why he had not sought Porter's removal as a priest even though he was aware of his abuse of children as early as 1964. Instead, as the Globe reported last week, Porter's diocesean records show that Bishop Connolly and other church officials permitted him to work as a priest in parishes in five states even though they knew he was continually being found to be sexually abusing children.

In 1970, following accusations that Porter molested children at a church in northern Minnesota, a church psychiatrist recommended that Porter never be allowed to work again as a priest and Bishop Connolly suspended him from parish ministry. Two and a half years later, in 1973, Porter filed his formal request with the Vatican that he be allowed to leave the priesthood.

In the statements they filed to support Porter's petition, the primary concern of Bishop Connolly and other Catholic officials appeared to be whether his release from the ministry would reflect badly on the church, according to sources.

"The decision of this petitioner . . . will be received (as I receive it) with pain and regret at the loss of a member to the active ministry of the priesthood but not necessarily with any jeopardy to the Faith," said a July 17, 1973, letter to Pope Paul VI by an unnamed archbishop coadjutor of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, the sources said.

"The petitioner has not been a source of scandal within this Archdiocese. Neither is it my feeling that this petition, should it graciously be granted, would be detrimental to the faith of the people of this Archdiocese or, so far as it can be seen, elsewhere," the coadjutor's letter reportedly said.

Indeed, one of the questions posed to priests on the forms for evaluating the dismissal candidate was, "To what extent do you think this will be detrimental to the church or to the faithful?"

What emerges in this letter and other supporting documents forwarded to the Vatican is a portrait of church officials who, perhaps until the very end of Porter's tenure, showed considerable concern for the impact on the church of the loss of one priest and little apparent consideration for the many victims of the known sexual abuse.

"It is my conviction that every possible means toward the salvation of this vocation has been taken and to no avail," sources say the Minnesota archbishop wrote. "There seems to be no prospect whatsoever of a change of mind on the part of the petitioner."

What also emerges from this document is the church officials' preoccupation with the fact that Porter's dismissal might be frowned on by the Vatican at a time when the supply of priests was seriously diminishing.

In 1973, the year Porter was requesting to leave the priesthood, the Vatican was faced with an overwhelming number of such requests and was attempting to limit them, according to Richard Schoenherr, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin and expert in church demographics.

Statistics show that the years 1968 through 1974 were the "mass exodus years" for American diocesan priests, Schoenherr said. In 1971, there were 667 resignations by priests, with only 692 priests being ordained. In 1972, 609 priests resigned, and in 1973 -- the year that Porter formally submitted a petition to the Vatican to be relieved of his ordination vows -- a total 499 resigned.

Officials at the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis urged Porter's superiors to speed up his application for dismissal for fear that the Vatican would not permit it, according to documents in Porter's personnel file.

"Unmistakably, the readiness of the Congregation to recommend dispensations is diminishing -- and I would like to get this one in as quickly as possible, against the time when they will no longer be granted under any circumstances," Msgr. Ellsworth Kneal, head judge in the archdiocese's tribunal court, wrote to officials of the Fall River diocese in June 1973 in regard to the Porter case.

Porter received permission from Pope Paul VI to leave the priesthood on Jan. 5, 1974. He married, fathered four children and was living quietly as a bank officer in suburban St. Paul until last May, when a group of North Attleborough victims came forward and began pushing for his arrest.

He has since been indicted in Minnesota and Massachusetts on charges of molesting youths, and faces civil lawsuits in New Mexico and Minnesota. Porter has also been accused of molesting a girl who baby-sat for his children in 1987.

This week it was revealed that his wife's sister has accused Porter of molesting her almost daily while she lived in his basement in the mid-1980s. According to a police interview filed in Washington County District Court, Porter's sister-in-law said Porter fondled her while she slept and tried to force her to have sex with him.

Sources who examined the documents say that in their evaluation forms, Porter's fellow priests described Porter as a respectful priest with a pleasant personality who worked zealously in some areas but who seemed immature.

"His obvious problem was homosexuality," wrote Rev. Paul McCarrick, who at the time was an assistant pastor at St. Patrick's Church in Fall River, sources said. "However, I am convinced this was only a visible manifestation of a more serious problem. Hindsight tells me now there were early signs during the seminary days that no one recognized. He definitely should not have become ordained."

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 10/29/1992.
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