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Porter's alleged abuse victims angry with Vatican

By Victoria Benning, Globe Staff, 10/25/1992

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
lleged victims of ex-priest James R. Porter said yesterday that they were angry, but not surprised, that Porter admitted to the Vatican and Pope Paul VI in 1973 that he had molested youths at churches in Massachusetts and four other states.

"I'm surprised that the story came out, I'm not surprised that it happened," said Frank Fitzpatrick, a private investigator from Rhode Island. He says he was molested by the former priest while a student at St. Mary's School in North Attleborough. "This is going to shock a lot of people, but as cynical as I am about the church right now, I'm not surprised."

Fitzpatrick was reacting to an account in the Globe yesteray which reported that Porter, in a written statement sent to the Vatican in an attempt to gain permission to leave the priesthood, admitted that he had sexually assaulted youths at eight Catholic churches since becoming a priest in 1960.

According to sources, Porter wrote that he believed he had been able to avoid being discovered because he was a priest.

Neither Vatican nor Fall River Diocesan officials could be reached for comment yesterday. Recently, the Fall River diocese, which had jurisdiction over Porter, and several other dioceses instituted new policies to move more quickly and forcefully to deal with accusations of abuse by priests.

"I'm assuming this was part of the process (for returning to lay life) and from what I understand as part of the process you must write such a letter. But to see it in black and white is really shocking," said Roderick MacLeish Jr., a Boston attorney, who is representing many of Porter's alleged victims.

"If . . . the Vatican was aware of this pattern of abuse then why was there no outreach to the victims and their families?"

MacLeish said he believes the Fall River Diocese is "moving in the right direction" with its new policy of tackling complaints of abuse head-on.

"We have to make sure that we never, never, allow another Father Porter again. It was totally unacceptable then and it is totally unacceptable now," MacLeish said yesterday.

The Globe reported that Porter, who was indicted in Bristol County last month on 46 counts of sexual molestation, wrote to the Vatican 2 1/2 years after being suspended as a priest by the Fall River diocese. During the 2 1/2 years he led the life of a layman, Porter wrote, he was able to control his periodic urges to molest children, the sources said.

"Now there is no shield. I know that if I become familiar with children, people would immediately become suspicious," Porter told the Vatican.

Porter signed his petition on May 17, 1973, and formally submitted it later that summer. After it was recommended for approval by Vatican officials, Pope Paul VI formally allowed the petition on Jan. 5, 1974, sources said. The pope does not routinely read such petitions but receives a detailed briefing on their contents, Vatican scholars said.

The Globe reported earlier this week that several parishes knew of Porter's alleged actions, but this is the first indication that high Vatican officials had knowledge.

There is no indication that the Vatican or clergy who knew of Porter's confessions told parents that Porter had assaulted youths.

"The more I read, the more angry I get," said the mother of one of Porter's alleged victims. "The fact that these children were allowed to be harmed for so long and that no one did anything just makes me boil.

"Parents like myself were left to deal with it," said the woman, whose now-grown son says he was molested by Porter. "Perhaps if we had known early on what was happening, we would have known what to do for our children. I'm very, very, very angry by how much high church officials knew and how little we knew. It's as if they didn't care about the children."

"Why would anybody be surprised that the Vatican didn't do anything," said Steve Johnson, a Rhode Island man who says he was molested by Porter in North Attleboro. "The bishops knew and they are responsible to the pope and they took no action. I'm not surprised at all."

Fitzpatrick said that while he was not surprised that Vatican officials took no action, the pope "had a moral obligation to do something."

Fitzpatrick, who had been an altar boy, confronted Porter concerning the alleged sexual abuse during a telephone conversation in 1990. He said Porter told him then he had written to the Vatican seeking permission to return to lay life.

"I am surprised his letter was as explicit as it was," Fitzpatrick said yesterday.

In his 20-page statement, addressed to "Most Holy Father," Porter wrote that it had become known that he had become "homosexually involved" with "some of the youth" of the North Attleboro parish, sources who examined the document told the Globe.

Porter's alleged victims said current Vatican officials, including Pope John Paul II, must mandate a worldwide policy for dealing with sexual abuse among priests and develop a means of screening individuals with proclivities to pedophilia from the priesthood.

"It all goes back to Rome," said Johnson. "Ultimately the Vatican and the pope are responsible. My healing process has been one of forgiving James Porter. I cannot, until Rome decides to mandate specific reactions to remove these priests, embrace my religion -- the religion I was raised in. I'm too angry."

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 10/25/1992.
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