The case of James Porter, who has been charged with sexually abusing children in his parish in the 1960s, has been a painful legacy for North Attleborough, where many of the former priest's accusers and their families still reside. Suddenly, the town that could not talk about sexual abuse speaks of little else.
By Linda Matchan, Globe Staff, 8/29/1993
"Rumors were that he liked little boys," recalls Edward Lambert, who runs a North Attleborough insurance agency. Frank Fitzpatrick Sr. had heard it, too. "Suddenly he was transferred, and the rumor that we got was that he was too friendly with the kids and that the church felt he had gone overboard," says Fitzpatrick, a retired owner of an insurance adjusting business who sent all four of his children to St. Mary's School.
But this was a small New England town before the days of Oprah, a more trusting and innocent period when words like "pedophile" and "sexual molestation" were not part of most vocabularies, when the actions of Catholic priests were not questioned, the judgment of their superiors never second-guessed. That the ebullient Father Porter seemed to prefer children's company to adults' was seen by many as a plus, a sign that the young curate had a "way with kids." Just how far overboard did he go when he supervised St. Mary's altar boys or coached North Attleborough's Little League All-Stars? The notion that a priest could have sexual designs on children was a concept most people could not fathom. "It was a sin even to have had the thought pass through your head," says Bea Gaboury, who sent her five children to St. Mary's School and has learned that her youngest son is among Porter's accusers.
And so while Porter was allegedly fondling, assaulting, and sodomizing scores of boys and girls in St. Mary's Parish between 1960 and 1963, there was little public speculation about his inclinations. A North Attleborough mother who says she found Porter fondling her 12-year-old son in his bedroom while the priest was visiting never spoke of what she saw, because, "My husband said, 'Who would believe you? It's his word against yours.' " Another who remembers telling "10 or 20" other mothers that Porter had touched her son improperly said not one would believe her. Boys who were sexually initiated by the priest say they kept it to themselves, because they were scared they'd be called homosexual. Girls who normally told their best friends all their secrets say they didn't divulge what Porter had done to them because they were sure it must have been their own fault.
It was a family secret on a grand scale, a sort of townwide "institutional denial," says John Daignault, a Brockton psychologist who conducted forensic evaluations on more than 40 of Porter's alleged victims who reached a settlement last year with the Catholic Church. It was a burden borne most painfully at the time by many of the town's children, who felt it was theirs alone, and hidden by members of the church hierarchy, who, several parents have charged, were aware that the priest was victimizing children but failed to expel him from the diocese for nearly seven years.
It would be nearly three decades before North Attleborough's shameful little secret would be broken by one of those children, Frank Fitzpatrick Jr., now a private detective. He is the son of the insurance adjuster who had heard the rumor about Porter in 1963 but never guessed that all four of his children -- three daughters and a son -- would number themselves among Porter's victims.
It was Frank Jr., the detective, who spoke out first. After years of repressing the sexual abuse, he began to have flashbacks in 1989. Launching what would ultimately become the most celebrated case of his career, he tracked Porter down in Minnesota, confronting him by telephone in 1990 with his memories of the assault. In conversations taped by Fitzpatrick, Porter, now 58, acknowledged that he had molested children in Massachusetts while he was "hiding behind the cloth."
When all the press conferences were over and the dust had settled, there would be 99 men and women from southeastern Massachusetts -- 68 of them from North Attleborough alone -- who would seek legal representation by Boston attorney Roderick Macleish Jr. against the Diocese of Fall River. The 77 men and 22 women charged that the diocese had wilfully shuffled Porter among three Massachusetts parishes despite knowledge that he was abusing children, and last year 68 of them settled their case with the diocese, reportedly for a total of at least $5 million (both parties agreed not to reveal the specific amount). As the story made national headlines, still more alleged victims would come forward from Minnesota and New Mexico. All would accuse Porter of molesting them in parishes to which he had been assigned by church authorities, even as he was undergoing treatment for pedophilia in the late 1960s and early 1970s
Porter, who left the priesthood in 1974 and is now married and the father of four children, was convicted last December of molesting his children's teen-age baby sitter in 1987; he was released from a Minnesota jail in May after serving four months. He is currently at home awaiting trial in Massachusetts, tentatively scheduled for October 4, on 41 counts of indecent assault, unnatural acts, and sodomy involving 28 victims in North Attleborough during the early 1960s. He still faces civil charges in Minnesota and New Mexico.
At a time when legions of priests are being accused of sexual improprieties with youths, James Porter stands as a kind of benchmark by which priestly misconduct can be measured. As details from his bulky personnel record have emerged, he has entered the annals of infamous Americans, earning a place in history as the predatory man of the cloth who dotted the American landscape with youthful victims while his superiors repeatedly forgave his sins.
This has not been a comfortable legacy for the small, proud town of North Attleborough, where many of Porter's accusers and their families still reside. Suddenly, the town that could not speak out about sexual abuse now can't be still about it. Many of Porter's accusers contend that they will no longer be silent about their trauma, maintaining that sexual abuse is a pervasive problem among Catholic clergy and that silence only feeds it. Liberated from their long-held secret, they are seeking therapy, organizing support groups, and lobbying vocally for stronger laws to protect child-abuse victims. So- called Porter survivors have formed two separate organizations to assist victims of sexual abuse.
To be sure, there are plenty of others in town who wish this sorry period in North Attleborough's history would just be swept back under the rug. They are tired of the sight of television cameras in front of St. Mary's Church and resentful that their beloved church has been associated with this scandal. One shop owner says he fears the name of North Attleborough will become inextricably linked with James Porter's, "like Lizzie Borden and Fall River, or David Koresh and Waco, Texas, or Ted Kennedy and Chappaquiddick. If you press it into people's minds enough," warned Joseph Veilleux, "you'll get your wish fulfilled."
In 1959, as James Porter was winding up his training at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore, 10-year-old Fred Paine moved with his family from Pawtucket, Rhode Island, to North Attleborough. He remembers his first impression of the town -- the large houses, the nearby farms, the leafy streets -- and says he decided it was the most beautiful place he'd ever seen. "It was like the Garden of Eden," explains Paine, now 44, who says he was molested by Porter when he was 12.
A pristine working-class community of about 14,000, with little extreme poverty and little extreme wealth, North Attleborough was a Sinclair Lewis kind of town, its population evenly divided for the most part between Protestants and Catholics of Irish or French Canadian heritage. It had a well-integrated main street with prominent churches and family-owned shops. While most families were of modest means, there were gracious old homes to the south of town, and hills and farms to the west.
The town was quiet and self-sufficient -- a secure, right-thinking place for parents to raise families. "We never locked our doors," recalls Paine. "You knew your neighbors. You could basically go anywhere and your parents wouldn't have to worry."
It would be a few more years before Route 95 would slice through the town as a three-mile link in President Eisenhower's ambitious highway- development program, and with the economy at full tilt, insular North Attleborough seemed to glimmer with hope, prosperity, and community spirit. Even the Attleborough area's major industry -- the manufacture of jewelry -- had a sheen to it. There was a job for almost everyone at places like the L. G. Balfour Co., which made class rings; Swank Inc., which produced cuff links and tie clips; and the Jewelled Cross company, manufacturers of crucifixes.
"We weren't sophisticated or cynical. We . . . kind of accepted the American way, the role of religion in the world, the role of neckties and shined shoes," says Richard L. Sherman, a former newspaper reporter and author of a 1976 history of the town.
"We were in the middle, between Providence and Boston, and kind of in a time warp," says Robert Van Ness, one of Porter's alleged victims, who now works as a sales and marketing executive in a nearby town. "We were in the 1960s but really in the 1940s."
For many Catholic families, it was the church that gave the community its stable underpinning. St. Mary's was one of two Catholic churches in town, and it was an all-encompassing institution, operating a nine-grade grammar school and sponsoring several athletic teams through the Catholic Youth Organization.
"St. Mary's was not just a school, not just the church, it was the blacktop where the basketball courts were," Van Ness explains. A meeting place before, during, and after school, he continues, it was where friendships were formed, forged, and grew. "Catholicism was something like that. It transcended a religion. It was like a club."
There was an order to life in those days, the last years before the Second Vatican Council issued its call to renewal and liberalized the rules of the church. "You went to church every Sunday, just as you ate fish on Friday and you had beans and frankfurters on Saturday," says Van Ness. Mass was still celebrated in Latin, and Pope John XXIII urged frequent Communion. If you spoke English, you went to Saint Mary's, known to townies as the "Irish church." If you were French Canadian, you went to Sacred Heart.
And few questioned the respect that was owed to priests, those sacred mediators between heaven and earth who had sacrificed so much for their vocation -- money, time, personal lives. "We were taught they were Christ's representatives on Earth, and that's a direct quote," Fred Paine remembers. "A priest would walk in, and nuns would bow to him."
Into this world swept Father Porter, a newly minted priest of 25 who had grown up in East Boston and Revere. Tall, fit, brimming with energy, he was assigned to St. Mary's in the spring of 1960, recommended by his seminary as "a manly, genuine young man" of "excellent character," whose "serious generous nature, and his sense of responsibility and his quickness of mind should help to make him somewhat of a leader among priests . . ."
St. Mary's parishioners couldn't have been more delighted with this vigorous new curate, who seemed an antidote to the more aloof older priests in the parish. Chain-smoking, restless, eager to take on responsibilities, he lost no time organizing the Little League All-Stars, coaching CYO basketball, and supervising the altar boys.
Today a few parents will confess that they were suspicious about Porter from the beginning. "I never trusted him from the time he came," says one North Attleborough mother who asked not to be identified because her son, an alleged victim, wants to remain anonymous. "He was too touchy, lovey-dovey, too feely."
'There was something about him that I didn't like," recalls another woman who, together with Porter, carpooled boys to a nearby cathedral camp and observed Porter there, associating with priests whom she suspected were homosexual. "I couldn't pinpoint it, and I couldn't tell anyone," she says. "They would have thought that I was crazy. But I always called Father Porter a sexual deviant."
But many adults were impressed with this chatty, down-to-earth curate who pitched right in on community events, seemed devoted to the sick and aged, and was proficient at all kinds of sports, even winning the town's Hi Neighbor award after rolling a high triple of 582 in the Knights of Columbus bowling league.
"I thought he was a goofy, galooping, gangly kind of guy," says Sherman, who belonged to a Protestant church but recalls that Porter had a strong presence in the town even among non-Catholics. "He was a priest for the kids at a time when priests interested in kids were thought to be good."
Years later, while in treatment at a New Mexico center for troubled priests, Porter would be characterized in a psychological evaluation as a "very likable person" who was "frivolous to the point of immaturity." But the boys of St. Mary's Parish thought he alone among priests could speak their language. He kidded around with them, knew their favorite TV shows, and was always showing off his athletic talents -- boasting that he had been a Golden Gloves boxer and tackling them on the ground and wrestling with them. To this day, men who knew Porter when they were children can still call to mind a vivid picture of the way he stood on the porch of St. Mary's rectory, hooked one arm around the railing, and performed a dazzling one-arm pull-up. They speak with one voice about his impact on them.
"My parents and family came first, but Jim Porter was probably next on the list," says Kerry Vigorito, who owns a North Attleborough clothing store and has charged Porter with molesting him in 1963.
"He was not likable, he was lovable," says Bob Van Ness. "He was very charismatic. You could talk to him about anything. He was accessible. He was everything every kid wanted to be, but he was an adult, in a position of power and respect."
"One of the reasons why I wanted to be an altar boy was so I could be close to Porter, " says Fred Paine. "Up till then, St. Mary's had been an old-fogy kind of parish. He was the one person I looked up to more than anyone and wanted to emulate."
But it wasn't long before a darker side of Porter's personality emerged. He had a hair-trigger temper that could erupt on the sports field. He developed a habit of hugging girls and asking boys for back rubs. The friendly punches on boys' arms got rougher and hurt. The playful wrestling became aggressive and more physical. Some of the older boys called him "the horn," a reference to the priest's apparent horniness.
According to interviews with the alleged victims and their families, Porter began sexually abusing boys, as well as some girls, within weeks of his arrival. The assaults, they say, ranged from being restrained and aggressively fondled to more abusive sexual behavior -- more than half a dozen boys were sodomized or subjected to oral sex; about the same number of girls were digitally raped. For some it was a one-time assault, while others were molested repeatedly. A few have said that other priests in the church, most notably Rev. Armando Annunziato, observed acts of abuse or were told of them by children but failed to take action to stop them.
Apparently unconcerned about the risk of discovery, Porter is said to have had a ravenous sexual appetite, brazenly molesting children in the church rectory, during Confession, in the sacristy, in the school, in the children's homes, even beneath the statue of the Virgin Mary in the schoolyard.
One mother who says she found him fondling her son in his bedroom and ordered him angrily out of her house discovered the priest back at her door the next day; he'd returned to get his hat. Fran Battaglia says Porter molested her when she was 12 and in the hospital following a serious car accident. He had been asked by her parents to break the news to her that her uncle, who had been the driver, had been killed.
Most thought they were the only children Porter victimized. Some who witnessed assaults on other children say they had an unspoken agreement never to tell. The promises were honored for 30 years.
"No one would have believed you," says Cheryl Landry Bryant, who said Porter assaulted her one night in seventh grade while she was waiting outside the school for a ride home from choir practice. She didn't even tell her cousin, who lived two houses away, "and we told each other everything."
This, after all, was a priest, and "as Catholics we are brought up to think priests are God," says Janet Blythe, one of Frank Fitzpatrick's sisters. Many say they feared their parents would punish them if they dared speak against Porter at home. They had been taught that the hands of priests were sacred. How could they explain that Father Porter's hands had defiled them -- particularly in Catholic North Attleborough, which was so Victorian in its sexual attitudes that "you couldn't say the word "pregnant," according to Bob Van Ness.
"There was such a warped sense of sexuality," says Janet Blythe. She remembers a schoolmate in third grade being scolded by a nun for conducting an "immodest act" -- doing the splits. In fifth grade, she knew another girl who confessed to a priest that she'd committed "adultery" because she hadn't been wearing an undershirt.
So naive was she that Blythe could not even begin to comprehend what had happened to her the day -- it was her birthday -- that Porter assaulted her when she was either 11 or 12. "We had no clue," says Blythe. "Your body tells you it was not appropriate, but your mind doesn't understand."
"I couldn't even describe what he did to me," says Kerry Vigorito. "I'd never had experience with an erection. How did you tell someone these things?"
Nor did many children feel they could seek solace among the nuns who taught at St. Mary's, many of whom seemed more antagonistic to the children than benevolent. Blythe and other former students of St. Mary's recall being verbally abused by "even the nice nuns" and seeing children struck with rulers and threatened that they would be sent to reform school for even minor transgressions. The epitome of modesty, with their black habits and "the longest rosary beads you ever saw," the nuns were hardly confidantes to whom a child could confess sins of the flesh.
But even adults who had suspicions about Porter couldn't imagine what was happening. Pedophilia was "a totally foreign concept," says Rita Fitzpatrick, Frank and Janet's mother. "The only thing we heard about was incest, and you thought that happened in some far, distant place, in some uneducated family." One mother who said her son, an altar boy, had confessed to her that Porter had been fondling him called a meeting of other mothers to alert them. But not one of them believed her, nor did her husband.
"I told them he was touching boys where he shouldn't be," she said. "But it was all, 'He's a priest, and he couldn't do things like that,' " says the woman, who now lives out of state and asked not to be identified. "And then I saw the same ones I told on Prime Time Live on a July 1992 program featuring Porter's victims and their parents, and it just made me ill."
Bishop Sean O'Malley, of the Fall River Diocese, describes a "ghetto mentality" in the Catholic community at the time and says he "wouldn't be surprised" if some of the parents of victims "closed ranks" if they knew what was happening out of fear that the scandal would reflect badly on them. "They might have felt, 'What would Protestants think? What would Yankees think?' " the bishop suggested in a recent interview.
At least four parents did take their concerns to church officials, however, and by 1963 authorities were evidently convinced that some action had to be taken. In July of that year, they abruptly transferred Porter to a parish in Fall River. Although he apparently received psychological treatment, including shock therapy, complaints continued to emerge about his behavior with boys. Two years later, he was transferred again, this time to New Bedford, where he allegedly molested even more children.
But in July of 1963, the official word in North Attleborough was that Father Porter had left the parish as part of a routine transfer of personnel. "Father James Porter Goes to Sacred Heart, Fall River" proclaimed a breezy front-page article with a large photograph of the priest in North Attleborough's Evening Chronicle. "He has been a fine assistant at the local church ever since he came here three years ago," the paper reported. "He was beloved by the youngsters and highly regarded by all adults with whom he came in contact."
Given the heightened interest in sexual abuse in the last few years, it was inevitable that a social scientist or two would come along and see a gold mine of research potential in the victims of James Porter.
Without question, they are an exceptional group. Unlike other studies of child abuse, which tend to be hampered by confounding variables -- the victims are of different ages, for example, or have different backgrounds -- the population of men and women who say they were abused by Father Porter is unusually homogeneous. Most children came from intact and happy families. They were abused at roughly the same age. They lived in the same town, in many cases the same neighborhoods. Even the perpetrator was the same.
Not surprisingly, they are the focus of two separate research studies being conducted by Brockton forensic pysychologist John Daignault and his colleagues and by a group of researchers coordinated by Dr. Stuart Grassian, a Chestnut Hill psychiatrist. Both men were drawn to the Porter story last year, after they were retained to interview the 68 alleged victims who were negotiating a settlement with the Fall River diocese.
Both studies found the alleged victims to have been seriously traumatized. "There was no individual who sailed through this without significant consequences," Grassian says.
Many of the alleged victims had experienced problems that developed immediately after the abuse was said to have begun. They became depressed, withdrawn, guilt-ridden, fearful, and prone to behavioral disturbances, including heavy drug use "as a means of coping with the guilt and shame," according to Daignault.
Many did grow up to lead outwardly productive lives. Many married and became parents. Among their number are several businessmen, a dentist, an educator, a civic leader, and a legal administrator. But upon detailed examinations, the researchers say, many have experienced a degree of psychological turmoil that is out of proportion to what one might have expected from what Grassian terms "apple-pie-and-ice-cream kids" from stable homes.
As adults, many reported difficulties in achieving meaningful, productive lives. Several were chronically unemployed. At least two women in Daignault's sample had had multiple hospitalizations for suicide attempts and substance abuse. A number of men had spent time in jail, generally following drug-induced rages that led to assault-and-battery charges.
Grassian says he saw in a striking number of alleged victims "a very, very pronounced tendency towards a development of either chemical dependency, gambling addiction, or sexual compulsiveness, like compulsive masturbation." He found that in preliminary interviews with 25 victims, 80 percent reported problems with long-term substance abuse, 50 percent had had symptoms of depression, and 70 percent had difficulties with intimacy, including divorce or an inability to sustain long-term relationships.
What most shared, says Daignault, was a profound sense of spiritual restlessness, a lack of inner peace. Most reported an "across the board" loss of faith in the Catholic Church. While some still attend church, including St. Mary's, the vast majority, he says "had discontinued all contact."
Although Daignault has in the course of his career heard many moving stories about the lingering after-effects of child sexual abuse, he says there was a qualitative difference to the stories related by Porter's alleged victims. As children, they had been betrayed by the ultimate figure of trust -- a priest who was a stand-in for God. These children's agony could only be described as "existential," says Daignault. "It was too much to bear. If God would betray you, who does one turn to?"
Thirty years have passed. Ninety-nine men and women have stepped out of the shadows. Their stories are variegated and still emerging.
Some are faring better than others. There are those, like Cheryl Landry Bryant, a 45-year-old mother of two who says that even though she has never forgotten the assault -- "in these 30 years I thought about it once or twice every week" -- the experience "has impacted me, but not in an overwhelming way. I never got totally lost."
But there are others, like George Hardie, 44, for whom the Porter legacy continues to be a struggle. He can enumerate a lengthy list of symptoms that cropped up after his alleged sexual encounters with Porter, not all of which have abated. They include alcohol abuse, violent outbursts, gastrointestinal disorders, migraine headaches, memory loss, obsessive-compulsive behavior, and thoughts of suicide. Although he has had a successful career and feels he's putting his personal life back together, he believes it was the abuse by Porter that contributed to the recent breakup of his marriage. "Imagine hearing, 'Take your flashbacks and get out -- I'm not living with James Porter anymore,' " Hardie says sardonically.
For many of Porter's accusers, particularly those who repressed the conscious memories of the abuse for many years and are only now confronting them, the pain is easily revisited. Fred Paine said he stayed away from North Attleborough for 22 years -- "the sign on 95 bothered the hell out of me" -- but a few weeks ago, he returned on a Sunday morning to attend Mass at St. Mary's for the first time since he was a boy. He walked out after only a few minutes, his eyes misted and hands trembling. "That son of a bitch," he murmured bitterly, when he got outside.
It has been an especially difficult burden for the families of Porter's accusers. Parents say they have been consumed with guilt, and at least one child described becoming a sort of second-generation victim. A 15-year-old North Attleborough high school boy whose father has gone public with his accusations against Porter says he has been teased cruelly by other students: "I was pushed, I had smoke blown in my face, I was called names and punched. . . . One kid wrote me a note that said I screwed my father anally. It went on for months."
"You are left with such a feeling of hopelessness," says Frank Fitzpatrick Sr. "You cry not for yourself but for your children and what they must have gone through."
Yet as the criminal case has dragged on, those who have been affected by James Porter have had to find a way to integrate the experience and move forward. For some, this has meant stepping away from the microphones, dropping out of the support groups, and getting on with the business of life. A small number have maintained a connection with the Catholic Church. Others have taken comfort in community work to assist other victims of sexual abuse, through public speaking or their involvement with the Protect the Child Foundation, a new North Attleborough-based support network and referral service for victims of child abuse that was founded by Porter victims.
For others, their experience with Porter continues to be a defining, all- consuming aspect of their lives. Frank Fitzpatrick Jr. has, with his wife, Sara, formed Survivor Connections, an organization that maintains a "survivor database" of sex-abuse perpetrators to link victims with one another and spins out prolific mailings, including a newsletter about sex-cases, "The Survivor Activist."
Most express a sense of accomplishment that as a group of victimized individuals, they were able to mobilize 30 years after the fact and seek Porter's indictment.
"We have brought this to light," says Michael Vigorito, a North Attleborough dentist who says he was molested by Porter in the sixth grade. "We have proved that, no matter what the outcome of the trial, we can get someone like this into the justice system."
If there is any commonality among the victims and their families, it is in their bitterness toward the Catholic Church for what many describe as a "good old boys' network" of priests who placed the welfare of men of the cloth above the good of parish children. How else, they say, does one interpret the fact that church authorities gave Porter so many second chances? How else does one interpret the fact that five months ago, Bishop Sean O'Malley elevated to monsignor Rev. Armando Annunziato, the Mansfield priest accused of witnessing acts of sexual abuse by Porter and failing to take action to stop it? Or that in an article last December in The Anchor, the diocese's official newspaper, the bishop defended this decision by saying of the victims' testimony: "I believe that memory can play tricks on us." Or that hardly a day seems to go by without more stories in the news about priests who have molested minors?
At the chancery of the Fall River Diocese, Bishop Sean O'Malley has, he says, been praying for the victims of James Porter. He has heard their stories, many times, in graphic detail. He says he is convinced that the abuse was as "horrifying" as the victims have depicted it.
O'Malley will venture even further -- a distance traveled by few other bishops on the subject of sexual abuse -- and say that "we know we have inadequacies" and that "mistakes were made" in the Porter situation. "But," he adds cautiously, "mistakes were made across the board. The church did depend on the behavioral sciences of the day and got bad advice." As far as Father Annunziato is concerned, the bishop says, he has seen documentation that has led him to conclude unequivocally that the monsignor is innocent.
Though O'Malley did not produce the documents, he insists that Annunziato "was the first one to blow the whistle on James Porter. He came immediately to the bishop. He was a very good priest for over 40 years, he is dying of cancer, and I felt not to do something to vindicate him and his family would have been a crime." He continues, "I know it was a very unpopular thing to do. But I feel I have a moral obligation . . . I have to answer to God."
Bishop O'Malley, who is 49 and a Capuchin Friar, is surprisingly open about the scandal that has dogged him during his 11-month tenure in Fall River. He knows there are many among the alleged victims who have turned their backs on the church, but he has not lost hope that eventually they will reconcile. He acknowledges frankly that their anger has been "frustrating," since he has made their concerns "a priority," implementing their ideas in a new diocese policy on child sexual abuse, speaking to victims every week, and visiting the three parishes where Porter served in order to address the issue with parishioners. The diocese will soon begin sexual-abuse "consciousness- raising" for Boy Scouts and other Catholic youth
Linda Matchan is a member of the Globe staff.
This story ran in the Boston Globe Magazine on 8/29/1993.