Diocese of Fall River Says Lawsuit Filed by Woman in Rev. Porter Sex Abuse Case Continues 'Painful Episode'
By Brian Fraga
June 24, 2013
[Porter laicization letter to the pope]
[Original laicization to the pope]
More than 20 years later, the scandal of the Rev. James Porter continues to be a “painful episode” for the Diocese of Fall River.
On Monday, the diocese said it had not seen the latest lawsuit filed in a Minnesota state court on behalf of a woman there whom Porter abused several times from 1969-70.
The victim was 9 years old at the time. She said Porter molested her whenever he visited her family’s home and in the parish school in Bemidji, Minn., where he served as an assistant to the pastor.
The woman, now her in 50s, continues to suffer emotional distress, humiliation, loss of self-esteem and embarrassment, said Jeff Anderson, a civil attorney representing the plaintiff who has represented dozens of other sex abuse victims in lawsuits against the Catholic Church.
The lawsuit in Minnesota — where the statute of limitations does not apply in sex abuse cases — accuses the Diocese of Fall River and its co-defendants of negligence and seeks $50,000 in damages.
“With the assistance of church leaders from the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., to the Diocese of Crookston to the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Father Porter abused children across the United States with impunity,” Anderson said.
The lawsuit also seeks to compel the dioceses of Fall River and Crookston, Minn., and the Servants of the Paraclete — a Catholic religious community where Porter was transferred to for rehabilitation — to release the names and files of all priests accused of sex abuse. The lawsuit accuses the Diocese of Fall River of not releasing the names of 32 priests who it said in 2004 had been accused of sexually molesting minors.
John Kearns, spokesman for the Diocese of Fall River, said the diocese, in the aftermath of the Porter scandal, made the prevention of child abuse and the implementation of strong policies of response to allegations of abuse among its top priorities.
“This remains the firm resolve of Bishop George W. Coleman today,” Kearns said.
In 1993, Porter was sentenced to serve 20 years in a Massachusetts state prison after he admitted to molesting 28 children. He died in 2005 from cancer.
The Porter scandal rattled the diocese almost a full decade before the nationwide clergy sex abuse crisis broke in 2002. The fallout prompted former Fall River Bishop Sean P. O’Malley, in 1992, to implement several policies to curb clergy sex abuse. Today, the diocese requires all sex abuse allegations to be reported to civil authorities, mandates that all clergy, employees and ministers undergo regular criminal background checks and suspends anyone accused of sexual misconduct while an investigation is pending.
The Diocese of Fall River also has a standing Review Board that serves as an advisory body to the bishop. The board includes a licensed mental health worker, civil and canon lawyers, an adult survivor of clergy sex abuse and a parent of a sex abuse victim.
“In 1992, the Fall River Diocese was among the first of dioceses nationwide to publish detailed policies and procedures designed to help prevent incidents of abuse and to formulate steps to be taken in response to claims of abuse,” Kearns said. “Since then they have been reviewed regularly and revised for clarification and improvement.”
However, the situation was different a half-century ago, according to court documents.
In 1963, former Fall River Bishop James L. Connolly reportedly said he knew Porter “had become homosexually involved with some of the youth” of St. Mary’s Parish in North Attleborough.
“Thus began Porter’s involvement in the Catholic Priest Protection Program,” Anderson said. “Porter could not have had better assistance if he was a high-value federal witness. Bishop Connolly shuffled Porter between parishes in Massachusetts to keep the heat off him.”
Porter was quietly reassigned to Sacred Heart Parish in Fall River and St. James Parish in New Bedford, but sex abuse allegations continued to be made against him. He was sent out of state to be rehabilitated, but it never worked, and Porter continued molesting children at stops in New Mexico, Texas and Minnesota even though his superiors knew about his relapses, according to court documents.
In 1973, Porter wrote a letter to Pope Paul VI requesting to be laicized and admitted to molesting children. That same year, in the packet of paperwork to remove Porter from the priesthood, Bishop Connolly filled out a questionnaire where he wrote that Porter “should be protected, and kept away from youth, especially early teenagers.”
“In other words, protect Porter,” Anderson said. “Children are but a secondary consideration.”