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Some fault church on sex abuse by priests

By Dolores Kong, Globe Staff, 5/11/1992

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
espite continuing disclosures about sexual misconduct by its priests, the latest on Thursday, the Catholic Church is not responding to the problem as aggressively or as uniformly as other religious denominations, according to a number of specialists in religion and in sexual abuse.

While the problem of sexual abuse among clergy appears to cut across all religious denominations, critics say the Catholic Church is having a particularly hard time confronting the problem in part because of a lack of leadership from Rome, the church's unique adherence to celibacy, and its long tradition of handling sexual scandals more privately than other denominations.

"You would expect the Catholic Church could do more than other churches because it has the most centralized lines of authority," said Gary Schoener, executive director of the Walk-in Counseling Center in Minneapolis and a nationally recognized expert on sexual misconduct by clergy and professionals. "But it's a very mixed picture -- you have some archdioceses that are way out ahead of this issue and you have others that are totally out of it."

Officials of the US Catholic Conference acknowledge that the church had not confronted the problem of sexual misconduct by clergy as a serious issue until very recently. But they say that guidelines now advise dioceses on how to handle such allegations as promptly and as sensitively as possible.

Locally, the problem of sexual misconduct by clergy attracted renewed attention last week as 15 men and women who grew up in the Fall River-New Bedford area accused a former Catholic priest of sexually molesting them when they were children in the 1960s in his parishes. The former priest, James R. Porter, who now lives in Minnesota and has a family there, has never been prosecuted or sued. In a taped interview broadcast on television, a man WBZ-TV identified as Porter acknowledged molesting between 50 and 100 children while a priest in Massachusetts in the '60s.

Five other clergymen in Massachusetts have been arrested on sexual charges in the past year. In western Massachusetts, police have charged two Roman Catholic priests. One is accused of sexually molesting five boys in his Shelburne Falls parish; the other is charged with raping a woman who worked in his Holyoke rectory. Last week, a former Episcopal priest in Lincoln was convicted and sentenced to prison for raping his former stepdaughter while she was a young girl. A Unitarian minister and a priest from the Polish National Catholic Church have also been arrested on similar charges in the last few months.

While there are no data on the incidence of sexual misconduct among specific religious denominations, several surveys indicate that between 10 and 15 percent of clergy from Protestant and Catholic denominations report having sex with members of their parish or congregation.

"I see evidence of sexual misconduct in every part of the country and in every denomination," said Karen Lebacque, a professor of Christian ethics at the Pacific School of Religion who has studied the issue.

In recent years, a number of religious denominations, including some Catholic archdioceses, have implemented specific policies and procedures for preventing the problem and dealing with allegations as soon as they arise. On the national level, experts on sexual abuse say that the Episcopal, Presbyterian and Lutheran churches have taken a lead in dealing with the problem -- instituting procedures for supporting victims and training church leaders and lay members to recognize and root out cases of inappropriate clergy conduct.

Bishop Harold Hopkins Jr., director of the Office of Pastoral Development for the Episcopal Church, headquartered in Yarmouth, Maine, says he has conducted clergy conferences on the issue in well over half the Episcopal dioceses in the country, including almost all of the dioceses in New England.

A number of Catholic archdioceses, particularly those of Chicago and St. Paul-Minneapolis, also have made aggressive efforts to tackle the problem. However, observers say the track record of dioceses in Massachusetts is not as strong. For example, neither the Boston archdiocese nor the Springfield diocese has a written or published policy on how to handle sexual misconduct allegations. Nor has either diocese conducted training sessions on sexual misconduct for church leaders, priests or laity.

Police say that the two priests in the Springfield diocese were moved to other parishes when church officials found out about the criminal investigation against them. Only when the two priests were arrested and actually charged with the sex crimes were they placed on administrative leave by the Springfield bishop.

The alleged victims in the Porter case charge that when complaints were made to the diocese in the 1960s, the church moved Porter from North Attleborough to Fall River and then to New Bedford. Church officials have declined to discuss the allegations.

"When sexual misconduct surfaces, the church has chosen to simply move the priest to another parish," said Jeffrey Anderson, a St. Paul attorney who has represented many alleged victims of sexual abuse by clergy. "The Protestant denominations, while not perfectly forthcoming, haven't dealt with it in that fashion, in part because they didn't have the same power as a Catholic bishop does."

"It's a catch-as-can situation in many places," said A. Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist at Johns Hopkins University and a former Catholic priest who has written extensively on sexuality in the church. "The main rule in many Catholic dioceses seems to be to avoid scandal at all cost."

Local and national church officials dispute that assessment. Spokesmen for the US Catholic Conference say the church now recognizes the problem of sexual misconduct to be a serious one and has issued a set of recommendations on how archdioceses should handle allegations of sexual misconduct by priests. These recommendations advise the diocese to investigate allegations immediately; remove the priest whenever evidence warrants it; follow the reporting obligations of civil law; send pastoral assistance to the victims and their families; and seek appropriate treatment for the offender.

"Up until a few years ago, neither the church nor society in general understood sexual abuse as a serious psychological problem or even an addiction," said Rev. Kenneth Doyle, a spokesman for the US Catholic Conference, the legal and educational arm of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. "But today we realize this is a deep-rooted psychological problem for which people need treatment and for which they need to be removed immediately from their ministerial obligations. I think the church's highest priority is and always must be the protection of children."

One of the reasons church officials may be viewing the problem with greater seriousness is their heightened legal liability from a spate of lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by priests. Since 1985, the Catholic Church is estimated to have paid out more than $350 million in damages, health care, and legal expenses involving cases of priests abusing children and adolescents, according to Jason Berry, a Catholic journalist and author of a soon-to- published book, "Lead Us Not Into Temptation."

While some of the larger Protestant denominations have paid out millions of dollars in similar abuse suits, officials in these denominations -- which have much smaller memberships in the United States than the Catholic Church -- say their legal fees do not come close to the Catholic Church's damages.

Some critics contend that the Catholic Church has a particular problem with pedophilism -- the molestation of young children -- while other denominations are more troubled by the sexual abuse of adult women and teen- age girls.

Many of the disclosures that have shaken the Catholic Church in recent years involve the sexual abuse of children -- particularly young boys. Such cases not only attract greater publicity than abuse cases involving adult women or teen-age girls, but they also lead to much higher jury awards and out-of-court settlements.

For example, the largest jury award in a sexual misconduct case involving clergy so far came to $3.5 million and was leveled against a Catholic priest in Minnesota who sexually abused more than 30 boys over a 20-year span; the local archdiocese was accused of knowing about the priest's misconduct as early as the 1960s and was found liable for both punitive and compensatory damages in the case.

Many critics also point to a lack of leadership from Rome on dealing with sexual abuse. While the US Catholic Conference has issued a set of voluntary recommendations on what Catholic archdioceses should do when faced with allegations, the Vatican has not taken as aggressive a posture on the problem of sexual misconduct as it has, for example, on abortion and other issues involving human sexuality.

As a result, the effort by some US leaders of the Catholic Church to reform church policy and countermand a longstanding tradition of handling scandals secretly has been at best ad hoc and at worst inadequate, say critics, including one local priest.

"The hierarchy in the United States is making a good-faith effort to understand these complex problems, but there's a good deal of resistance to facing these questions openly -- here and especially in Rome," said Sipe, the former Catholic priest and Johns Hopkins researcher, who has published a book called "A Secret World: Sexuality and the Search for Celibacy." "Rome has put an intellectual embargo on discussing any of these questions openly, whether it be celibacy, sexual misconduct, abortion or the ordination of women."

"Celibacy and human sexuality rarely get addressed in any systematic way in the church," agreed a Boston priest, who asked not to be identified.

Some observers claim the Catholic Church has in general failed to come to terms with the consequences of requiring men to lead celibate lives.

"The problem with this system is that you cannot keep people from being sexually active, you can only keep them from getting married," said Kathleen Sands, an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, who has studied the impact of celibacy on women.

"The operative mode in the church is denial -- to deny that priests are sexually active at all," agrees the local who asked not to be identified. "And I think denial is the most dangerous mode you can operate in. Research has shown that when things are very repressed, they are most likely to be acted out."

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 5/11/1992.
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