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Porter's plea aids victims little, church paper says

By James L. Franklin, Globe Staff, 10/8/1993

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
n the strongest statement yet by church officials on the case of James Porter, an editorial in this week's issue of The Pilot, the newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, calls sexual abuse of children a felony and a mortal sin.

New understanding of human behavior may eventually help people understand "the mysterious dark side of the human psyche," its "aberrations, obsessions, compulsions and addictions," the editorial said.

"But in doing so we must never forget that sexual abuse of a child has always been a felony in common law and a mortal sin in the teachings of the church. Even insistent cries for human compassion must recognize these two fundamental civil and religious truths."

Church officials in Boston have been reticent about the Porter case, the nation's most notorious involving clergy sexual abuse. Porter pleaded guilty Monday to 41 counts of sexually assaulting boys and girls while a priest in the diocese of Fall River.

When the case broke last year, there was no resident bishop in Fall River after Bishop Daniel Cronin was named archbishop of Hartford. The spotlight turned to Cardinal Bernard F. Law, who has some oversight of the Fall River diocese.

As archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Law is also the metropolitan, or head, of a province of dioceses in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts. His powers include supervision of vacant dioceses.

Cardinal Law and The Pilot, of which he is publisher, had spoken out in general about clergy sexual abuse as "sickening" and something that had caused "every Catholic believer . . . pain." But they had avoided commenting directly on the Porter case while charges were pending in Massachusetts.

Commenting on Porter's guilty pleas, the Pilot editorial noted that "whatever may be Porter's punishment, it will not replace the lost innocence of youth."

Porter's pleas avoided the need for a trial and "a great deal of further human pain," the Pilot observed.

But "it will not erase the haunting nightmares, the emotional self-doubt, and that terribly frightening sense of being used and thrown away by someone in whom they had placed great confidence," the paper said.

"Their young lives were altered irreparably. And whatever healing now takes place will leave a permanent scar, an indelible reminder of something that can fade but never fully disappear."

Besides the immediate victims, Catholic laypeople, members of religious orders and priests "also experience . . . a sense of betrayal" in cases of clergy sexual abuse, the Pilot said.

In the wake of the accusations against Porter and several other Massachusetts priests, the archdiocese reviewed its handling of sexual abuse cases by church workers, adopted new guidelines for handling future cases, and named two delegates to oversee the church's response to them.

"Americans have been stunned at the extent of sexual abuse in our society," and the rash of charges lead to unwarranted suspicions of everyone working with children, a kind of guilt by association, The Pilot said.

"This type of unwarranted suspicion breeds its own painful injustice. It too must cease," the editorial said.

But The Pilot warned against attempts to blame the problem of abuse on "the sexual revolution" or to hold the abuser "less responsible because he was asked to live in these tough times, rather than in a gentler age.

"In ethics, context counts, but it never excuses," the paper said.

Calling attention to Pope John Paul II's new encyclical on morality, the editorial notes that the pope "insists that if we retreat from the disciplined discourse necessary for clear moral thinking, public morality is at stake."

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 10/8/1993.
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