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In Fall River diocese, high hopes

By Linda Matchan, Globe Staff, 8/11/1992

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
s Bishop Sean Patrick O'Malley is installed today as the bishop of Fall River, many are hoping that his appointment will bring change and a sense of relief from the controversy that has ensnared the diocese for the last few months.

Bishop O'Malley, who has been bishop of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands for seven years, was appointed spiritual leader of the diocese by Pope John Paul II, succeeding Rev. Daniel A. Cronin, who became archbishop of Hartford in December.

Not since the arrival of Cardinal Bernard Law in Boston in 1984 has an installation -- normally a solemn religious event -- been so publicly anticipated in Massachusetts. Bishop O'Malley becomes the bishop of Fall River in the wake of searing criticisms of diocesan authorities for the church's handling of accusations against James Porter, a former priest in the diocese.

Porter has been accused of sexually molesting approximately 70 youngsters while he served at three parishes in the Fall River Diocese between 1960 and 1967. Many of those who say Porter abused them, now grown men and women, are irate that he was transferred from one parish to another in Massachusetts, and later to Minnesota and New Mexico, even as authorities were apparently aware of his sexual tendencies.

While the Fall River Diocese has declined to comment publicly on the matter or furnish details about Porter's whereabouts after he left the state, Bishop O'Malley has impressed many in the diocese with his compassion toward Porter's accusers and his stated willingness to investigate why church officials failed to take stronger action when Porter was a priest.

Last month, Bishop O'Malley told reporters that he would order all church officials, including priests, to cooperate in a full investigation of the matter, and acknowledged the church had "made serious errors" that "will not be repeated."

"My heart goes out to the victims," the bishop has said.

In Fall River, meanwhile, many church leaders were in high spirits yesterday as final preparations were made for the installation of Bishop O'Malley by Cardinal Law, the archbishop of Boston.

"We are feeling jubilation," said Rev. Horace Travassos, rector of the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption in Fall River, where the installation will take place.

"People are always thrilled at the appointment of a bishop but they are thrilled about this one especially, because of his qualities -- he seems very humble, he seems very pastoral, and very approachable and down to earth," the rector said. "When he was first appointed, he approached this whole matter of James Porter with his compassion and the way he is trying to work this through. Folks here are happy that he was the one chosen."

Bishop O'Malley, 48, was ordained to the priesthood in 1970 as a Capuchin friar, a branch of the Franciscan religious order, which dates back to the year 1528 and whose members customarily dress in brown robes and sandals.

Born in Lakewood, Ohio, he studied for the priesthood at St. Fidelis Seminary in Pennsylvania and at the Capuchin College in Washington, D.C. He later earned a master's degree in religious education and a doctorate in languages at the Catholic University in Washington, D.C. He is fluent in several languages, including Spanish and Portuguese, and in 1974 was named to head the Archdiocesan Apostolate for the Spanish Speaking and the Spanish Catholic Center in Washington, D.C. From 1978 to 1982, he also headed the Office of Social Development for the Washington Archdiocese.

While in the Virgin Islands, he founded two soup kitchens, a shelter for the homeless, programs for pregnant and parenting teen-agers and the mentally ill, and a hospice.

"He reminds one of St. Francis with his simple concern for people, his love of God, and his wanting to be an instrument of peace," said Father Travassos.

Meanwhile, expectations are high for the new bishop, as the attorney representing many of Porter's accusers said his clients want an immediate investigation of the circumstances surrounding the Porter case.

Bishop O'Malley's statements about the case "have been very broad and general and now is the time for specific action to be taken," Roderick MacLeish Jr. said yesterday. "We are looking for him to immediately deal with the unresolved issues in the Father Porter case and make sure concerns of almost 70 clients are addressed. It will take more than just sensitivity and compassion to resolve this to my clients' satisfaction."

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 8/11/1992.
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