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Responding to Porter's victims


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
ow that James Porter has admitted his transgressions, it is time for the Catholic dioceses where he served as a priest to accept responsibility for his repeated acts of sexual abuse, and for American bishops to respond more fully to this growing scandal. The anguish of Porter's victims endures, and the church's need to make a caring response is undiminished.

"I was a very sick man . . .," Porter said by way of expiation. "I sexually abused a number of children." Whether his actions were symptomatic of illness or not, they were certainly crimes.

Porter may yet be prosecuted in Massachusetts, where the law suspends the statute of limitations when a suspect leaves the state. But there is no time limit on pastoral responsibilities, and here the church needs to examine its own lapses and make amends.

Twenty-five years ago there was an informal code of silence about sexual abuse, but Porter's actions were so egregious -- 62 of his victims have now come forward -- that they became known to church leaders in Fall River. They merely transferred him from parish to parish and only sent him to a treatment center in New Mexico after repeated and flagrant episodes of abuse. He ended up, still an assigned priest, in Minnesota.

The same code of silence followed him west. Either his superiors in Fall River failed to tell the Minnesotans about his behavior or the Minnesotans neglected to ask. The treatment center in New Mexico also failed to issue a warning that might have prevented further abuse.

At least the Minnesota diocese acted forthrightly when told of the Porter case in 1970. While church officials quickly removed him from his parish, they, like their counterparts in Fall River, did not provide counseling for his victims.

Under Massachusetts law, the church is liable for only $20,000 in damages for the harm Porter did here. The Fall River diocese needs to ask itself whether in good conscience it can seek the protection of this law. His victims' cries for help should not be ignored.

If dioceses throughout the state do not show more vigor in devising policies to deal with future cases of abuse, a bill to raise the liability limit deserves action by the Legislature.

Nationally, while individual dioceses and bishops have acted forcefully, the church as a whole has been reluctant to adopt a uniform policy to prevent men with this disorder from entering the priesthood, to dismiss any who are ordained, and to assure the victims of appropriate therapy.

Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, acknowledged the need for more aggressive action. Yet the bishops have not yet acted on a 1985 report outlining steps that could be taken, including the formation of a national team to intervene in cases of abuse.

This inaction confronts the church with growing financial losses from lawsuits filed in states where it is not shielded from liability. Far more importantly, it undermines the faith of parishioners who have the right to expect that their priests will be trustworthy counselors instead of predators on the most vulnerable parishioners.

"I lost my religion, faith, my ability to trust adults and institutions," says one of Porter's victims in Massachusetts. In a spirit of compassion, the church must make an attempt to reach out to every one of Porter's victims in need of help.

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 7/20/1992.
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