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Porter pleads guilty to assaults as priest

Admits molesting 28 youths in 1960s

By Tom Coakley, Globe Staff, 10/5/1993

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
EW BEDFORD -- As James Porter recited the word "guilty" 41 times in court here yesterday, admitting he sexually assaulted dozens of young Catholics while a priest 30 years ago, Fred Paine, a victim and court spectator, trembled with emotion as tears streamed down his face.

Grasping the hand of another victim's wife, peering at the fatigue and impassiveness in Porter's face, Paine, a beefy, bearded man, uttered in a high whisper: "We did it!" Following his guilty pleas yesterday to 41 indictments charging he sexually assaulted 28 young Catholics from southeastern Massachusetts in the 1960s, Porter, a former priest, will be sentenced at a Dec. 6 hearing before Bristol County Superior Court Judge Robert Steadman.

Neither the prosecution nor defense would say what sentence they will recommend, but sources have reported that Porter, who is free on $20,000 cash bail, had been reluctant to plead guilty in the past because prosecutors wanted him to serve two consecutive 18-to-20 year terms. The charges carry a maximum of 292 years in prison.

Paine and his fellow victims -- 99 men and women from southeastern Massachusetts have come forward -- successfully brought Porter's sexual crimes to light, casting the issue of clergy abuse of children onto the national stage.

Many victims, including private investigator Frank Fitzpatrick, who launched a personal investigation of Porter in 1989, assisted Bristol County prosecutors to bring the ex-priest to trial on the indictments, which represent the strongest cases prosecutable under the state's statute of limitations.

The victims of the abuse Porter admitted yesterday were all under 16 at the time the assaults occurred. Some were under 14.

Porter spoke in soft tones in court, staring at the judge or court clerk. His attorney, Peter DeGelleke, said the ex-priest had admitted his crimes and expressed remorse before, and pleaded guilty in order to "continue on with the rest of his life."

"It was Jim's decision," said DeGelleke. "I only provided advice."

DeGelleke said he hoped he could convince the judge that Porter, who left the priesthood in 1974 and is married and the father of four in Minnesota, has changed since the 1960s.

The lawyer said Porter planned to make a statement at the sentencing hearing. Statements will also be made by each of the victims.

A spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fall River said the diocese had no comment on Porter's plea.

Bristol County District Attorney Paul Walsh said his office would request "substantial" prison time for Porter, and would ask the judge to order him to seek counseling and stay away from children in his work and social activities.

Despite evidence that Catholic church officials knew of Porter's crimes but never reported them to secular authorities -- instead for years simply transferring him to church after church -- Walsh said he had no intention of prosecuting church officials for their handling of Porter.

"This was an indictment, an investigation and prosecution into despicable acts done by one individual," said Walsh. "It is not an indictment of the Catholic church or any other religion."

The guilty pleas were a source of satisfaction for Porter's victims, many of whom crowded into the courtroom yesterday.

Neither Paine nor Fitzpatrick was among the victims listed in the indictment. But they and other victims spoke of vindication and of their hope for a stiff sentence for Porter, who sodomized and molested his victims while a priest at churches in North Attleborough, New Bedford and Fall River.

"It validates so many things," said Paine, who like many other victims had repressed memories of Porter's attacks. "Not only that he did what he did, but now the repressed memories are valid, and it's certainly out in the open and not going to be put up with anymore."

George Hardie of North Attleborough, another victim, cried in the courtroom.

"I feel good about the guilty plea but it's not over until the sentencing," Hardie said afterward. "The most marvelous thing in the world was, I knew he did it to me and he got up and he said he did. I served my 30 years, now it's up to him."

Victim Dennis Gaboury of Baltimore said: "It really turns victims into victors."

Fitzpatrick, of Cranston, R.I., said he was pleased with the plea but had hoped the case would go to trial so Porter would have faced the charges in more personal way. He was happy, however, that victims would be spared the trauma of a trial.

And Steven Johnson, who would have testified at the trial, was glad to be spared the ordeal.

"Whenever the memories come back to me it really stirs emotions. It's pretty devastating. I think going through a trial would have been extremely devastating to all of us," said Johnson.

Porter was indicted by a Bristol County grand jury in September 1992. The period covered in the indictments runs from August 1961 to September 1967, when Porter was a priest at St. Mary's Church in North Attleborough, St. James in New Bedford and Sacred Heart in Fall River.

The indictments came after extensive publicity about Porter's crimes, triggered by Fitzpatrick, who tracked down Porter in 1990 after realizing that he had repressed the memory of the priest's attack on him.

Assistant Bristol District Attorney Renee Dupuis, reading facts that supported the indictments, related attacks by Porter on young Catholic boys and one girl that took place in the basement of a rectory, at a Catholic day camp, in a church sacristy, in an altar-boy room and at homes, among other places.

Dupuis said she was prepared to offer at least four admissions by Porter to molesting youths as a priest in the 1960s, including one admission to a Boston television reporter.

Dupuis also said that school records and church records corroborated recollections by the victims, proving they were living in the parishes at the time of the crimes. Church records also show that officials were made aware by parents of some of the crimes and that at least one parent confronted Porter with allegations the ex-priest had molested his son.

Porter received treatment for his problems while a priest and served in the priesthood in New Mexico, Minnesota and Nevada.

In December he was found guilty of molesting one of his children's baby sitters in Minnesota and served six months in jail earlier this year.

Sixty-eight of Porter's victims took part earlier this year in a legal settlement -- reportedly totaling $5 million -- with the Fall River Diocese, where Porter served as a priest.

The diocese has adopted policies, drafted by the victims, for dealing with priests like Porter, Fitzpatrick said.

But, following the plea yesterday, Fitzpatrick said he wanted more widespread acceptance of the policies. He wanted Pope John Paul II to endorse them, he said.

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 10/5/1993.
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