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Spotlight Report

  Annie Milner of Providence, a former nun, with letters written to her by her fiance, James Porter, shown in police custody. (Globe Photo / Sarah Brezinsky)

Despite past, jailed ex-priest seeks 'just one chance'

By Linda Matchan, and Stephen Kurkjian, Globe Staff, 7/14/2002

BRIDGEWATER - He was the first Massachusetts priest to go to prison for molesting dozens of children. And in a little more than a year, serial pedophile James R. Porter, 67, will be the first to be eligible for release.

Many people are interested in whether Porter does, in fact, go free, including the scores of men and women he raped and molested as children, and the Bristol County district attorney, who can potentially block his release.

And Annie Milner of Providence, Porter's new fiancee.

''He's just asking for a chance, just one chance,'' said Milner, a 69-year-old former nun who first met Porter about 40 years ago in Fall River, where she was raised and he was working as a seminarian, and was reunited with him last year.

''He has said to me, `I want my victims to know that I realize what I've done to their lives,''' Milner said. ''If the victims can only see he has changed, they would change their hearts a little bit.''

Porter's jailhouse romance is only the latest implausible twist in the extraordinary story of a Fall River Diocese priest who sexually abused boys and girls in five states during the 1960s and '70s, despite the knowledge of his superiors, then left the priesthood, married, and fathered four children - at least one of whom he molested, according to his former wife, Verlyne Gray.

Yet Milner's contention that Porter has been reformed raises nettlesome questions that are relevant at a time when the Catholic Church debates whether abusive priests can ever be rehabilitated. Can serial pedophiles ever be cured? Can an offender like Porter conceivably just pick up where he left off dozens of victims ago, and start life afresh, as a law-abiding citizen?

These questions, at the center of the treatment offered to Porter as well as other pedophiles and sex offenders incarcerated at Bridgewater, will have to be answered before he is released. And in Porter's case, there are some clues.

While his fiancee is convinced that he has taken the necessary steps toward recovery, a review of previously undisclosed letters written during his years as a priest and to his former wife while incarcerated show that he has been trying for four decades to persuade those close to him that he had been cured of the pedophilia that afflicted him. Yet during many of those years, he continued to molest children.

DA is likely to request he be civilly committed

Next summer, about six months before Porter is scheduled to complete his prison sentence, the office of Bristol District Attorney Paul F. Walsh Jr. will be officially notified of his pending release. Walsh's office, which gained Porter's guilty plea in 1993, will then review Porter's treatment to determine whether to seek a court order declaring him a sexually dangerous person so he can be kept in prison under a civil commitment.

While Walsh's office will not make a recommendation before that review, First Assistant District Attorney Renee R. Dupuis, who led the team that prosecuted Porter, said it is likely that the office will seek to have him civilly committed. The office twice successfully opposed Porter's efforts to win parole, asserting that he was still sexually dangerous.

Walsh's office may have a more difficult time in having Porter held under the state's civil commitment statute. To comply with the law, Walsh's office must show that Porter continues to suffer from uncontrolled sexual impulses that make it likely that he will reoffend if he is set free. According to data provided by the Massachusetts Superior Court, judges have upheld requests by Walsh's office for civil commitments against only two individuals since January 2000, while dismissing requests on 16 others. Statewide, judges have granted civil commitment requests sought by prosecutors against 11 prisoners, while dismissing them against 83 others, the data showed.

Shuttled to parishes around the country

Porter, who did not respond to Globe requests for an interview, was sentenced in 1993 after pleading guilty to 41 counts of sexual assault and was sentenced to 18 to 20 years in prison. According to prosecutors, Porter molested nearly 100 boys and girls in Massachusetts between 1960 and 1967, while assigned to several parishes in the Fall River Diocese. After church authorities grew suspicious of his activities, he was shuttled to parishes in New Mexico, Minnesota, Texas, and Nevada, where he continued to abuse children. His sex crimes ranged from rape to oral sex to masturbating in front of children, according to court transcripts.

Two years ago, he was transferred from the Franklin County House of Correction in Greenfield to the Massachusetts Treatment Center at Bridgewater, a state-run facility that provides evaluation, counseling, and testing for about 550 prisoners who have been convicted of a range of sex crimes, from lewd conduct to rape.

Bridgewater officials are in the process of redesigning their sex offender treatment program. The Justice Resource Institute, which established the nationally recognized clinical and educational model that has treated Porter and others for the past decade, lost its state contract on July 1, but its successor is offering a similar program, officials said. Using group therapy, classroom lectures, and evaluations, the institute's program attempts to help inmates develop responsible lifestyles by recognizing their sex-offending patterns of behavior.

''This can be an uphill battle, since many sex offenders have so many distorted ideas about their behavior, themselves, sex, the world, women, and children,'' said Michael Henry, director of forensic psychological services at Bridgewater. ''We have [pedophiles] here who say the child was being seductive towards them.''

Getting pedophiles such as Porter to acknowledge their condition, the harm they have done as sex offenders and their need to be vigilant to future occurrences is a central part of their treatment. The letters obtained by the Globe suggest that even after Porter acknowledged the harm he had done, he nonetheless continued to abuse children.

In April 1964, Porter, who had been ordered to take a week's retreat after allegations had surfaced about his abuse, wrote to Fall River Bishop James L. Connolly about the medical assistance he had received: His family doctor, ''a wonderful Catholic, pulled no punches with me [and] had no sympathy .... It was during those talks that I began to realize what it was to be a priest ... and to admit I was a complete selfish, immoral disgrace to God, myself, and all concerned.''

`I've caused great spiritual harm to others'

In 1967, after more reports of sexual abuse, Connolly informed Porter he could no longer function as a priest in the diocese and ordered him to seek retreat at St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer.

''I went to see [The Retreat Master, Fr. Anselm] and I thank God that I did,'' Porter wrote Connolly in May 1967. ''For once, I've faced reality and can't feel pity for myself. I've caused great spiritual harm to others and must do all I can to reconcile myself with God and pray for those whom I've hurt.''

In November 1967, Porter, having been sent for treatment to a facility in Jemez Springs, N.M., sent a progress report to Connolly: ''I am sure now that for the first time in my life that I am facing my problem as I should.... I realize ... that the temptation will always be there, but I am resolute that I not only have the ability, with God's grace, but I do have the will and drive to control it... now.''

While receiving treatment, Porter was allowed to leave the facility and serve as a priest in nearby parishes. According to court records, while serving in parishes in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, he continued molesting children.

But that abuse was not uncovered until later. Porter, in fact, so impressed Paraclete officials with his progress and enthusiasm for work that in the summer of 1969, he was transferred to a clergy retreat house in Nevis, Minn., and then to a parish in Bemidji, Minn. There, too, he continued to molest children. The next year, with the patience of his superiors finally exhausted, Porter decided to leave the priesthood.

Six years later, he married Verlyne Gray, and settled down in St. Paul. The marriage, which produced four children, lasted 17 years, until Porter's history of abuse surfaced. Beyond those he had abused while a priest, Porter's former wife told the Globe last month that Porter confessed to her that he molested her 23-year-old sister in 1984, and that their oldest son has told authorities Porter sexually abused him, too.

Porter wrote to his former wife numerous times while he was in prison, making frequent reference to his recovery.

''I am doing my part by being honest & facing my problems - all of them,'' he wrote in October 1996. ''1. What I caused you & the children. 2. My selfshiness & seeking my own needs & ends. 3. My affinity towards children ... I have also come to grips with my victims & what I have caused them.''

`I always believed the Lord would bring us together'

In June 2000, he wrote of his transfer to the Massachusetts Treatment Center for sexual offenders.

''I'll give it my very best trying to ensure that I do everything possible to better myself for me and all others especially you & the family.'' In April 2001, he wrote that the program was helping to transform him. ''The more I participate and focus in therapy I become painfully aware of the hurt, pain & harm I inflicted on you and the family.''

His letters have tapered off, however, except for birthday greetings, Verlyne says. Now he is writing to Annie Milner. ''I can't believe how much you have helped transform me into a loving caring person,'' he wrote her last month.

Milner maintains that Porter is a changed man. ''God knows he has received a heck of a lot of negative press, and I know this was deserving,'' she said. ''He says, `Annie, I was a monster. I did things because of my old selfishness. ... I want my victims to know I realize what I've done to their lives, the impact I've had.''

Milner worked as a nun for 30 years, in Central America and later in Rhode Island, where she taught school, ran a Catholic education program for children, and did retreat work. Eventually she left religious life and in 1997 married a former priest, who died in 2000. A year later, she decided to write to Porter, whom she had first met in his early days as a priest in Fall River. ''I always believed that the Lord would bring us together some day,'' she said. ''His intense suffering and my intense suffering was the vehicle the Lord used.''

Milner visits Porter twice a week at the treatment center and says she loves him unconditionally. She says he ''gives 200 percent'' to his treatment program, and says his temptations are part of his past.

But Porter's victims are not convinced. ''Of course he'll do it again. It's just a compulsion with him. He's a sociopath with no conscience,'' said Frank Fitzpatrick Jr. of Cranston, R.I., who was molested by Porter when he was 12.

Specialists say it's hard to know who may reoffend

If Porter plans to make the case that he's no longer sexually dangerous, he has a lot of work ahead of him. Specialists who work with sexual offenders say pedophiles tend to be manipulative. They say it's very difficult to predict who might reoffend. No treatment program will guarantee that a sex offender will no longer act in those ways, says Karl Hanson, who conducts research on sex offender treatment for the Canada's Department of the Solicitor General in Ottawa.

''We can't cure people,'' concurred Bridgewater Deputy Superintendent Christopher Mitchell. ''We can provide a program that decreases their risk of reoffending and gives them the tools to shift the way they think.''

But according to Dr. Martin Kafka, who works with men with sexual disorders at McLean's Hospital, some pedophiles are more likely to molest again than others.

''If one looks at pedophiles as a group, in terms of their severity and likelihood of relapse, you can generally say that incestuous pedophiles - males who have only molested relatives - have the best prognosis, and those who molest boys, especially stranger boys, have the poorest prognosis,'' he said. While results vary, recent studies have found between 7 and 15 percent of individuals treated for pedophilia reoffend after five years.

''I think this is typically not a volitional behavior,'' Kafka said. ''It is a compulsion. It's highly insistent, highly repetitive. You can't just decide you aren't going to do it anymore.'' He added: ''The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.''

Linda Matchan's e-mail address is lmatchan@globe.com. Stephen Kurkjian's address is kurkjian@globe.com

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 7/14/2002.
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