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Porter goes on trial today

Minn. baby sitter alleges abuse

By Linda Matchan, Globe Staff, 12/7/1992

 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
INNEAPOLIS -- While one phase of the James R. Porter story was settled last week, another begins today in the case of the former Massachusetts Roman Catholic priest accused of molesting scores of children and teen-agers across the country over a period of almost 30 years.

Porter, the subject of criminal and civil charges in three states, faces his first legal challenge in this city when he goes on trial in a Washington County District Court for allegedly sexually abusing his own children's teen- age baby sitter in 1986 and 1987. Now a 21-year-old woman, she has given police graphic accounts of how Porter allegedly forced himself on her on several occasions while she was baby-sitting and his wife was out of the house.

Last week, 68 men and women who say Porter sexually molested them in Massachusetts during the 1960s reached an out-of-court settlement with the diocese of Fall River, totaling a reported $5 million. Their attorney, Roderick MacLeish Jr., said it was the largest group of people ever to have settled a case of sexual abuse with the Catholic church.

There are both men and women among those who say they were sexually abused by Porter during his seven years as a priest in the diocese, but the majority were altar boys in North Attleborough, Fall River and New Bedford. MacLeish has maintained that it was the fault of the diocese that Porter, about whom church officials had heard allegations of child molestation as early as 1960, was retained as a priest and allowed to victimize others.

Porter has been indicted on 46 sexual abuse charges involving 32 men and women in Bristol County. He also faces civil charges involving more than a dozen Minnesota and New Mexico youths whom he allegedly molested during and after the time he spent in treatment at a New Mexico center for troubled Catholic priests.

This week Porter stands trial on charges that nearly two decades after he left Massachusetts to seek treatment in New Mexico, he made forcible sexual overtures to the family baby sitter on six occasions when she was 15 and 16. Porter left the priesthood in 1974 and now lives in a suburb of St. Paul with his wife, Verlynne, and four children. He is free on bail.

The baby sitter is expected to testify that Porter instructed her to take baths with his children and that he dried her off with a towel, touching her genitals and breasts.

She has told police that on one occasion, Porter asked her to watch television with him and engaged her in conversation about sex education, saying that boys and girls should be sexually active while in puberty and that it was appropriate for older men to be sexual with young girls. She alleges that as he spoke to her, he forced her down on the couch and pulled his pants down.

Porter has denied the charges. He has reportedly told law enforcement authorities that he has never been sexually active with young girls, while acknowledging he had some sexual involvement with boys while a priest.

The case will be heard by a jury of eight women and six men. Among the 18 potential witnesses who may be called by prosecutors are two of Porter's children and the baby sitter's older sister, who has alleged that she too had forcible sexual contact with Porter when she baby-sat for the family in 1981.

Judge Kenneth Maas will rule today on whether to admit evidence from the sister; from Porter's alleged victims in Massachusetts, Minnesota and New Mexico; from a Minnesota neighbor who alleges that Porter assaulted him in 1971; and from Porter's sister-in-law, who has alleged that Porter sexually molested her in his home when she was 25 or 26.

It was impossible to tell from Porter's impassive demeanor at the courthouse last week that he was the focus of a landmark out-of-court settlement between his accusers and his former diocese.

Porter spent the week watching jurors being selected for his trial. If he was uneasy about the impending trial, he gave no indication. Seated next to his wife and near his attorney, Paul Lukas, Porter appeared as engrossed as any other observer in the courtroom. He listened attentively, never flinching, as prospective jurors answered questions about whether they could remain objective given that almost all said they were aware of allegations about Porter's sexual behavior with children.

Porter, gray and balding at 57, glanced occasionally in the direction of reporters and greeted them with a nod as he entered and exited the courtroom. From time to time he and his wife smiled and even laughed at amusing comments made by jurors. At lunch breaks, she linked her arm through her husband's as the two walked silently down the corridor.

Regardless of the outcome of the Minneapolis trial, Porter still faces the prospect of returning to Massachusetts sometime early next year to face the criminal charges that he molested 32 children while a priest at three parishes in the Fall River Diocese between 1960 and 1967.

Porter's lawyers filed a motion in court on Friday seeking dismissal of the charges on the grounds that it was unconstitutional for him to be tried for acts that allegedly took place more than 25 years ago. Under Massachusetts law, the six-year statute of limitations is frozen when an alleged perpetrator leaves the state.

Porter's lawyers contended the statute should distinguish between defendants who leave the state specifically to avoid prosecution and others. At the time that Porter left Massachusetts in 1967, to seek medical treatment at the Catholic retreat in New Mexico, there was no criminal investigation into his acts, they said.

Porter's lawyers, Peter DeGelleke of Concord and Erin Boisvert of Boston, submitted an affidavit from Porter in which he said he could not remember any of the acts he is charged with because of electroshock treatment he received for his sickness in 1964 and 1965.

"Mr. Porter is completely unable to mount a defense or assist counsel in doing so with respect to the acts alleged in the indictments," DeGelleke and Boisvert said in their motion. "Without such a memory, counsel will be significantly prejudiced in his efforts to perform an investigation, cross- examine the alleged victims or present a defense."

They also filed an affidavit from Dr. George B. Thomson, a psychologist who stated that treatments such as the ones Porter received can have "the greatest likelihood" of bringing on amnesia.

Porter's lawyers are expected to press the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to rule on the case's constitutional issues before going forward with the trial.

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 12/7/1992.
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