The Change Agents
October 27, 2018
It started with an ad in this newspaper.
“Do you remember Father Porter?” the ad asked, inviting those who did to a meeting.
Seven people showed up. They not only remembered Father James R. Porter, they were haunted by him.
Porter had been a young priest in the early 1960s at St. Mary’s Church in North Attleboro, He was popular among some children because of his youthful vigor and athletic talents — but others knew a dark secret.
Father Porter was a pedophile.
Among those at the meeting was Frank Fitzpatrick, a private investigator who was tortured by the memories of the sexual abuse he had suffered from Porter.
Using his detective skills, he tracked Porter down in Minnesota and even recorded a vague confession from the former priest over the phone.
Fitzpatrick and other victims went public with their accusations in 1992, setting off a media maelstrom.
Twenty-five years ago this month, Porter pleaded guilty to molesting 28 children and was sentenced to up to 20 years in prison. The Diocese of Fall River settled civil lawsuits with scores of other victims.
Many thought Porter was simply a rogue priest and the coverup by the church — Porter was transferred from parish to parish before finally being quietly defrocked — a case of poor judgment.
In reality, it was the tip of the iceberg.
As today’s front-page story by Staff Writer George W. Rhodes explains, studies estimate that more than 4,000 clergy members abused nearly 20,000 people in the United States alone. And coverups, like Porter’s, were not isolated but systemic as church hierarchy chose to protect their institution rather than innocent children.
The scandal has had a seismic impact on Catholicism. Today, only 39 percent of those people who identify themselves as Catholic attended a service in the past seven days; a half century ago, it was nearly twice that number.
The church, very slowly, has begun reforms that may lead to a path of redemption. But those reforms will likely take not just years but decades to achieve.
Today, however, we would like to not so much recount the past but salute two groups of courageous individuals.
First, there are the seven victims who gathered after reading that ad in The Sun Chronicle.
They broke their story of clergy sex abuse more than a quarter of a century ago, long before scandals in Boston, Ireland and more recently Pennsylvania, and at a time when few knew about the depth of the problem.
Those brave individuals took the important first step that could eventually lead to healing for the victims and reform for the church.
Their actions should not be forgotten.
Second, there are the young men profiled today by Rhodes who have chosen to become priests in the midst of their faith’s darkest hour.
They are fully aware of the crisis that has overwhelmed the church and vastly changed public perception of the priesthood.
Still, they have answered a call to service. Accepting that call also took courage.
“Going into seminary you know it’s out there,” Matthew Gill, an Attleboro native who was ordained a priest in June, said of the sexual abuse crisis. “You know that awful and terrible things had happened. But it didn’t weigh on my decision. It was Christ’s call. It wasn’t up to me. If it was up to me I’d be playing in a jazz band right now.”
Brave individuals like Gill are the church’s best vehicle to travel a new path and end a scandal that has haunted far too many victims — and Catholicism itself.