The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


'Thank God you didn't have to live with him'

Former priest James Porter victimized more than the children he molested. His ex-wife, Verlyne, and daughters tell their story.

By Linda Matchan, Globe Staff, 06/05/02

OAKDALE, Minn. -- It was the winter of 1975 and Verlyne Bartlett was feeling better about life than she had for years. Engaged to a charming, affable, attentive man, her dreams of marriage and children seemed suddenly, and happily, real.

So she was not inclined to fuss when her fiance, James Porter, came to her one morning with a strange request.

Porter was an ex-priest, though he didn't talk much about that part of his life. But now, he told her, something had come up: The church wouldn't marry them unless they both took psychological tests.

"It didn't set off a lot of bells," Verlyne recalls, "So I went along with it."

A few weeks later, they got the good news: a warm letter from the Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis reporting that the test indicated "no foreseeable insurmountable problems" and offering "every encouragement" in the coming marriage. The head of the archdiocesan marriage tribunal, Monsignor Ellsworth Kneal, sent his own very best wishes to the soon-to-be bride.

What Kneal, and church officials, failed to mention was merely this: Porter was a rapist and pedophile who had been quietly forced out of the priesthood in 1974 after sexually molesting scores of children in Massachusetts, New Mexico -- and Minnesota.

Their silence freed Verlyne to dream; she thought Porter's years as a priest only made it more likely that he'd be a kind and caring companion, a God-loving husband and provider.

She got a lot more than that: a painful, sometimes abusive 17-year

marriage, the suspicion that her own children were molested by Porter, the nightmare of her husband's ultimate unmasking a decade ago, his arrest, trials, conviction, and imprisonment.

Verlyne meekly stood by Jim Porter through it all, too stunned to do otherwise. But now as the issue of clergy sexual abuse is roiling the church and riveting the nation, the former Mrs. James Porter -- and her two daughters -- are speaking out for the first time about their own victimization, about how the church's conspiracy of silence worked to shatter their lives.

"I'll be here cleaning up James's mess, forever and ever," says Verlyne, who divorced Porter after he went to jail and now goes by her mother's maiden name, Gray.

"We may not have had the same victimization as all those other people, and I don't want to minimize their pain," says her daughter Colleen, 25, "But I do want to say to them, "Thank God you didn't have to live with him and deal with him on a day-to-day basis."

Verlyne is also opening up now because she wants her voice to be heard as the church debates whether abusive priests can ever be reformed. She knows more than most about how easy it is for pedophiles to masquerade as "normal people with the same beliefs and goals as you."

And she wants, most of all, to try to ensure that Porter never gets out of jail. (Incarcerated at the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater, which treats sexual offenders, he is eligible for release in 2004.) His family is terrified of him; his daughters, who no longer use the name Porter, won't permit their new names to be printed in case he ever decides to look for them. (Porter did not respond to Globe requests for an interview.)

"I am so full of anger, rage, and hurt that I was not informed of my ex-husband's past," says Verlyne.

"I can't begin to describe the pain of knowing how I was so betrayed by an institution that claims to be fighting evil."

Love and secrets

How does a woman end up marrying a man like James Porter?

For one thing, she wasn't raised to expect much from her life, or to ask many questions when life brought her what she hadn't expected: a man who seemed to love her.

Verlyne grew up in a tiny rural town in South Dakota, a shy, introverted child. She was the oldest daughter of cold, judgmental parents who made it clear that, whatever went wrong, she was to blame. Her mother died suddenly when Verlyne was a teenager, leaving her to "become the little mommy" to three younger siblings. She was a studious, capable woman who loved reading and making pottery, who had an aptitude for science but dropped out of college after two years because she was deeply depressed. She once cried for 24 hours straight.

She was 22 when she met Porter in 1974 at a bowling alley where she was working as a weekend cocktail waitress. Porter, then 40, "pretty much barged into (my) life," Verlyne says.

The friend who introduced them told her Porter had once been a priest. Porter seemed alarmed the first time Verlyne asked about it, demanding to know who had told her. It was one subject he would never open up about, saying only that he had left the priesthood because "he and the higher-ups didn't get along."

There was some truth to that: Porter's priestly misadventures had bedeviled church authorities for years. In the 1960s and early '70s he'd sexually assaulted scores of boys and girls. Trangressions ranged from fondling to masturbation to sex games to rape, and church authorities shuffled him from parish to parish as complaints about his behavior kept surfacing. He finally admitted his crimes to the Vatican and was laicized -- allowed to leave the priesthood -- in 1974.

Porter's courtship of Verlyne began soon afterward, and she found him a lot nicer than the handful of other men she'd dated. He seemed kind and down to earth, and she was reassured that "he didn't have a wandering eye." She recalls seeing an acquaintance of hers flirting with him at a party and "he was so oblivious to it. I'd never known a guy who resisted someone making a pass at him."

Having grown up in a family that was so critical of her, Verlyne liked it that Porter seemed so accepting. "He didn't expect me to know how to roller skate or ski or any one of those other things that made you a wonderful woman. He didn't expect me to go to parties."

They had other things in common. Both had Irish roots; both had fathers who were musical -- and drank a lot. Both liked going to softball games. Porter was also endlessly energetic, which was fine with the comparatively low-key Verlyne. But when it came to sex, Porter was voracious. "I would have to fight him off, practically," she says. "I just thought it was because he was an ex-priest and he'd been deprived or something."

They were married in May of 1976 at St. Casimir's Church in St. Paul and bought a three-bedroom house in suburban Oakdale. In less than a year Verlyne was pregnant with Colleen. Sean was born three years later and Erin 15 months after that. Verlyne had four miscarriages before she had Kevin, now 10. With children, a house, and husband, her dream was taking shape.

The family was active in church life; Porter insisted on it. The children were required to recite the rosary every day and could never skip church. "You couldn't miss church, or you'd go to hell," Verlyne says. "Jim would say, `Every priest has his bugaboos,' and his was that there was no excuse for not going to church."

If Porter was strict about religion, he was casual about other responsibilities, such as earning a living. Fired from his job as a bank clerk shortly before their wedding -- he called his boss "stupid" at an office poker game -- he studied for a real-estate license but showed no interest in using it. It fell to Verlyne, who'd found a good job with the state, to support them. Porter, however, kept control over the purse strings, monitoring every penny that was spent -- and often squandering much of her earnings on frequent bingo games.

Although she eventually came to resent the fact that her husband couldn't keep a job, Verlyne was impressed in the early years with his devotion to their kids; he took them to choir practice and softball games, helped with their homework and the carpooling. "Jim seemed so involved," says Verlyne. "My parents never paid attention to us."

There were only hints, gradually becoming more frequent, of Porter's other side.

There was the bingo game the year after they were married, when Porter approached an acquaintance and patted him on the back in strange way that seemed to go on too long. "The guy just looked at him, and I could see from his face he wasn't feeling comfortable," Verlyne recalls. "It startled me." A few years later, she was again startled when she saw him playing with neighborhood children. He was spraying some girls with a garden hose until their T-shirts were soaking wet.

And Porter's hot temper began to boil over. He feuded with a neighbor. He lost a job at Burger King after sparring with his boss. He and his mother fought viciously when she visited from Massachusetts.

His constant target was Verlyne, whom he blamed for every mishap -- a painful echo of Verlyne's abusive mother. But his temper was most explosive around the children, particularly Colleen, the oldest. "Rarely a day would go by without me crying," says Colleen. "We were always fighting and yelling at each other. I had to be perfect, basically. If I dropped the ball in softball, the other kids would say, " Good try," but he'd say, "You should have had that." When she sang in the church choir, he told her she sounded like a "sick cow."

The children weren't allowed to play with other kids, or have birthday parties, or go to sleepovers. They were isolated, and increasingly scared.

Colleen remembers Porter hitting her so hard with a wooden spoon "it broke the head clear off the spoon." He pushed Sean so hard against the stairs that his mouth bled. Their father also had a habit of walking in on her when she was in the shower. Then there was the time he asked a baby sitter to disrobe while bathing the younger children.

Things were coming apart, yet Verlyne never seriously considered divorce; it all seemed too overwhelming. "He had control of the money, and I don't think there was anything I could have done to change that. How was I supposed to work and support four kids and deal with everything else?"

The truth comes out

Rev. James Porter

Then came the fateful day in February 1990 when Frank Fitzpatrick called.

Fitzpatrick was a private detective from North Attleborough who'd been molested by Porter when he was 12. Determined to bring the ex-priest to justice, he tracked him down in Oakdale. Verlyne answered the phone. "He said, `Do you know your husband sexually abused boys on a basketball team, and altar boys? "' Verlyne recalls Fitzpatrick saying. "I, of course, said I didn't believe him."

Then she put Porter on the phone. Over the course of four telephone conversations, which Fitzpatrick secretly taped, Porter acknowledged molesting children in Massachusetts. "I'm surprised nobody spotted it," Porter confessed to Fitzpatrick, at one point. "When it finally came out, naturally I was hiding behind the cloth."

Verlyne was distraught. "I tried to get more information out of Jim, but he just wasn't forthcoming. All he'd say was that all he'd done was move up against boys' butts. He just had a "thing for butts" -- that's what he would say. ... He'd say he was cured, that he hadn't done anything since we got married."

She didn't know what to believe, or what to do. Then Fitzpatrick took things out of her hands by tipping off the media to Porter's confession. His daughters will never forget the first phone call from a reporter in Boston. Porter began crying; the kids thought he had some terrible disease, like cancer. "He sat us all down and told us that he used to be a priest, and he molested kids," says Erin, now 20.

The girls were stunned: He'd never even told them he'd been a priest. And the next day was Colleen's confirmation. "I was in shock," Colleen says. "I was sitting there at confirmation, thinking, `My father's a child molester.' How's that for timing?"

Soon, reporters started congregating outside their house and following the kids to school. People threw rocks at the house and painted swastikas on it. Erin's best friend wasn't allowed to play at her house anymore, and her classmates ostracized her. At church, ushers stopped asking the girls to carry the communion wine and bread during services. When Porter took the children to a summer festival in Oakdale, Diane Sawyer was waiting for them, gathering footage for ABC-TV's "Prime Time Live."

Was it then or later that the next two bombshells dropped? Verlyne can't quite remember. Porter was indicted for molesting his children's baby sitter. And out of the blue, Porter confessed to Verlyne that when her 23-year-old sister lived with them for nine months in 1984, he'd snuck into her bedroom and fondled her while she slept. "I wasn't able to take it all in," Verlyne says. "It was like, `I'm down, I'm bloody. Kick me again. ' That's where I was at."

Verlyne plodded miserably through two years of publicity and legal proceedings, going to work each day, then coming home to deal with the children's despair. Sean was drinking. Erin was sleeping all the time. Colleen suffered from anxiety and guilt. Porter's anger grew still more explosive.

In 1992, Porter was sentenced to six months in jail for molesting the baby sitter; in 1993, he got an 18-to-20-year sentence in Massachusetts for crimes committed as a priest.

Verlyne divorced Porter soon afterward and hasn't seen him since. With him out of the house, no longer free to ridicule her suspicions, she finally started to piece together the story of their marriage in a new way. His evasive silence about his past, his rages, his irresponsibility fit the new picture better than they ever had her old contented dream of family life. And her anger swelled as she wondered what Porter might have done to their children. Could that be why Colleen developed anorexia in second grade? Or why Porter always treated Erin more as a girlfriend than a daughter, even sending her letters from prison with "SWAK" (sealed with a kiss) written on the envelope?

Porter also wrote Verlyne periodically, and his letters, intended to win her forgiveness, had quite the opposite effect. He infuriated her by minimizing his pedophilia, calling it his "affinity towards children." He couldn't bring himself to admit his crimes and asked Verlyne to help him sort it all out. After victimizing so many, Porter seemed, mostly, to feel sorry for himself.

"I am completely dependent on you & your real true love and caring," he wrote in one letter. "I'm alone & I'm really struggling. I pray that you never have to be as alone & shunned as I am. You don't mean to hurt -- you're too wonderful -- but in your heart you are being blinded."

In another, he bemoaned the hardships of inmate life, including his inability to order his coveted "Texas boots."

Meanwhile, life at home was spinning out of control. Sean was falling apart. He set fires in the garage and at a neighbor's house. He got into fistfights at school, and then, when he refused to attend at all, he was ordered to a residential treatment center for children with behavior problems. He told authorities his father had sexually abused him. When he returned home, he was violent with his siblings and at 13 was placed in a foster home. Now 22, he's living on his own, and Verlyne fears for him. She hasn't seen him in months.

Life has been tough for the other children, too. The girls have struggled with depression. They have no clear memories of being molested by their father but worry they may have repressed it. Colleen suffers from "horrible anxiety and guilt" and dropped out of college because "I had no motivation and was sleeping all the time." She says she seriously considered suicide in 10th grade, even before she knew about her father's history. "I suspect something happened to me or that I witnessed something," she says. "I do seem to have gaps in my memory. I kind of want to be hypnotized, to be sure that if I were to accuse him, I wouldn't be making a baseless accusation."

Erin's life has also been turbulent. Prone to angry outbursts, she spent time at an intervention center and in a foster home. She has since gone to business school and works for a customer service company. "I try not to let it affect me," she says.

Erin still writes to Porter occasionally; Colleen feels guilty that she doesn't. "I've started many letters but haven't finished them," she says. "I don't know what to say to him...

"Despite all that he's hurt me, I don't want to hurt him in return. I still have ambivalence about him. He's my dad, and I love him because he's my dad, but at the same time I'm disgusted with him."

No answers

It's been nearly 10 years since Porter went to prison, a decade of reflection and therapy that has left Verlyne feeling stronger and more enlightened, if not at ease. There is, in fact, a gentleness, a matter-of-factness about her when she talks about her travails. She has gradually built a safe and private world for herself, epitomized by her serene, elaborate garden in which she has found space for healing, toil, and contemplation. And she still has faith in God.

But not the church. Bridging that gap will take answers by church leaders to some hard questions, starting with why no one warned her that the man the church allowed to marry her was a monster.

That's one of the things she had planned to ask Harry J. Flynn, archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, at their scheduled appointment in April.

A friend of hers had contacted Flynn, urging him to help Verlyne. The archbishop wrote back, and said he "grieved" for Verlyne and her children and would be happy to meet her. "Please know that I would want to play any role possible in helping to heal any member of the Church," said Flynn, who in April was named by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops to head its key committee on sex abuse.

Verlyne scheduled an appointment for April 24. The night before the meeting, Flynn's office called her to say he was busy with his new duties and would not be able to meet with her "in the foreseeable future."

In the next day's newspaper, there was a column by Flynn, promising to reach out to victims and their families. He has realized, he wrote, "that one very important way to help bring such injured souls solace was to walk with them along their journey of spiritual healing."

Verlyne shakes her head and tosses the newspaper down on the table. Nothing surprises her anymore. "This has been my life," she says. "Sometimes you feel like you'll never be at the end of it all."

This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 6/5/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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