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Law sidesteps victims-fund idea

By Alison Bass, Globe Staff, 5/27/1992

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
ardinal Bernard Law yesterday sidestepped a request that the Archdiocese of Boston set up an emergency counseling fund for people who say they were sexually abused by former priest James R. Porter, triggering expressions of outrage and disappointment from several of those people.

A letter, sent to the lawyer for several reported victims by archdiocesan chief counsel Wilson Rogers, noted that the Archdiocese of Boston and the Diocese of Fall River, where the alleged abuse occurred in the 1960s, are separate jurisdictions.

"Notwithstanding that fact," Rogers wrote in a letter he drafted at Cardinal Law's request, "I am sure that any individuals approaching a priest for the Archdiocese of Boston seeking spiritual or pastoral counseling will be responded to, to the best of that priest's ability."

At a news conference later yesterday, three of the 48 men and women who say that, as children, they were raped or sexually molested by Porter said they were disappointed. They and their attorney, Roderick MacLeish Jr., said they interpreted the response to mean that no counseling aid would be forthcoming and that, if they could not afford therapy, they should go to a priest for counseling.

"I couldn't go to a priest because it would bring back too many bad, bad memories," said Paul Merry, 42, a supermarket manager from Cumberland, R.I., who says he was raped at the age of 11 by Porter while he was a priest at St. Mary's Church in North Attleborough. "Because of what happened, I don't go to church at all now."

However, John Walsh, a spokesman for the Boston Archdiocese, said Rogers was not saying all of Porter's alleged victims should go to a priest for counseling. He said he was surprised at the way MacLeish and his clients had characterized the response.

"What attorney MacLeish has chosen to do is target Cardinal Law because he's a well-known and highly visible figure," Walsh said. "But I think this tactic will only increase the pain and confusion already present in this tragic case."

MacLeish said he had written to Cardinal Law for help even though the alleged abuses took place in the Fall River Diocese because the cardinal has spoken out on the matter and because the alleged victims wanted an adequate pool of funds available for those who could not afford counseling on their own.

In the last few weeks, MacLeish said, he and members of his legal staff have spoken to at least 15 people who were in a state of extreme anxiety and trauma over the Porter case.

"We are not therapists and we are not equipped to handle people in crisis," MacLeish said. "We need therapists in on this and we were hoping Cardinal Law and the archdiocese could help us expedite this assistance."

Since Rogers' letter was specifically in response to the victims' request for financial assistance, MacLeish said, "It's very clear that they're suggesting these people go see a priest. I find the letter a totally unsatisfactory response. . ."

John Robitaille, one of Porter's alleged victims, read a statement on behalf of many of the group saying he did not believe the media and, in particular, The Boston Globe, had sensationalized or overplayed the allegations, as Cardinal Law charged in a speech Saturday.

"We agree with the comments of Rev. Thomas Doyle a well-known Catholic theologian that some dioceses today still flounder in denial over the issue of pedophilia," an abnormal condition in which an adult has a sexual desire for children, Robitaille said. "We are unanimous in our conviction that the events of the past several weeks are not the fault of any member of the media, most particularly The Boston Globe."

Robitaille and other victims said they would continue to speak out about their alleged abuse.

"In doing so, we mean no disrespect to the vast majority of Catholic priests who have no tolerance for the victimization of innocent children," Robitaille said. "But the church's strategy for dealing with the problem of pedophilia among clergy has been too often to pretend that it doesn't exist or to attempt to sweep it under the rug. We are here today to announce that those days are over."

Forty-eight men and women in New England have said they were raped or sexually molested by Porter while he was a priest in Catholic parishes in North Attleborough, Fall River and New Bedford. Nine have said they will sue the Catholic Church if it does not compensate them for the damages they say they have suffered and help bring Porter to justice.

Porter, 58, who left the priesthood in 1970 and now lives in Oakdale, Minn., was recently questioned by authorities about allegations that he sexually molested a child in that state in the 1980s.

"From what I understand about pedophilia, this kind of stuff goes on and on until the offender is behind bars, and that's when it stops," Merry said.

In their statement, Merry and the other alleged victims said they wanted Porter prosecuted for his actions. They also said that church officials knew of Porter's abuses when they transferred him to work with children at other local parishes and that they expected the Fall River Diocese to acknowledge that "terrible mistakes" were made in the way the church handled the situation.

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 5/27/1992.
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