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Parishioners say they'll dig deep to pay Porter settlement

By Victoria Benning and Stephen Kurkjian, Globe Staff, 12/6/1992

 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 -- Catholics in the Fall River Diocese said last week that they are willing to dig deep into their pockets to help the diocese pay a multimillion-dollar settlement to dozens of alleged victims of sexual abuse by former priest James R. Porter.

Those interviewed also expressed hope that now that a settlement has been reached with the alleged victims, the community and church can begin the healing process.

"Is money even really the issue?" asked Christine Repoza, as she picked up her four children from the Charles V. Carroll Elementary School here Friday. The alleged victims "were injured in a way they will never forget. They lost their childhood. No amount of money can replace that."

Said a priest at St. Patrick's Church who declined to be named: "Hopefully we can move forward now with a much more positive approach and with a return to real pastoral concerns. There is much healing to do."

It was announced Thursday that 68 people allegedly molested by Porter will split a settlement reportedly worth at least $5 million. The agreement between the church and the alleged victims prohibits either side from making public the dollar amount of the agreements. The amount for each person differed, and was determined by the seriousness of psychological trauma suffered, according to mediators involved in settling the case.

During his service to parishes here during the 1960s, Porter allegedly abused dozens of youths, most of them altar boys at churches in North Attleborough, New Bedford and Fall River. Although Porter's actions became known to other priests and superiors at the diocese, he was allowed to transfer to other parishes.

Under the agreement reached this week, Porter's alleged victims have given up their right to sue the diocese for failing to restrict Porter's activities. But Porter himself faces criminal charges of child molestation.

The settlements are said to involve the largest group of alleged victims of sexual abuse by a Catholic priest. They were reached this week after more than three months of negotiations overseen by Commonwealth Mediation and Conciliation Inc. of Boston, a private firm hired by both sides.

Roderick MacLeish Jr., a lawyer for the alleged victims, said Friday that some of his clients have already begun to receive their settlement checks from the diocese.

How the Fall River Diocese, which is said to be one of the poorer dioceses in the state, will find the means to pay the $5 million settlement is unknown. At this point, it appears the diocese will have to pay the settlement from its own funds because the two companies that sold the diocese liability insurance during the 1960s -- Continental Insurance Co. and Boston-Old Colony Insurance Co. -- backed out of the negotiations in August, arguing that the diocese had been so negligent in its handling of Porter that the companies should not have to cover the claims.

Diocesean officials declined to comment Friday on whether they could afford the settlement or how they intend to honor the agreement. But many of the parishioners interviewed here said the diocese should attempt to force the insurance companies to pay the settlement.

"It's insane," said one man who would identify himself only as a member of the parish of St. Mary's Cathedral. "There must be some way they can make them pay. It's like insurance for you and me. We pay our premiums and expect the company to come through. The church doesn't have that kind of money."

Others said that while it is unfair to parishioners and will probably be a strain on the diocese, $5 million is not a lot of money for 68 people.

"It doesn't seem fair that we should pay for something that happened a long, long time ago, but if they've got to do it, they've got to do it," said Brian LaBerge, a member of Notre Dame de Lourdes Parish. "It's not like we know where all the money we give goes anyway."

"I guess the church handled it the best way they could," said Repoza, who recently moved to St. Joseph's Parish. "It's a shame it had to happen at all. It really makes you wonder if you should go to church at all."

But Repoza, whose children are 5, 6, 7 and 8 years old, said she has talked to her children about "bad people" and doesn't fear for them in church. "I'm not worried about my kids," she said. "We all go to church together. They've been taught that I'm their best friend and they tell me everything."

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 12/6/1992.
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