Suffer the Children
By Philip F. Lawler
The place: Massachusetts
In the southeastern port city of New Bedford, James Porter appears in court to answer 46 charges of sodomy and indecent assault—charges that trace back to his days as a priest in the Diocese of Fall River, thirty years ago.
In another courtroom in Quincy, miles to the north, a jury hears final arguments in the rape trial of Father John Hanlon, a priest of the Boston Archdiocese, currently on leave from his post as a pastor in Hingham, an affluent seaside suburb of Boston.
In the west of the state, police prosecutors in Springfield are performing sophisticated DNA tests on a blood sample taken from Father Richard Lavigne, to see if it matches a sample taken from a murder victim.
James Porter pleads guilty to all charges, his lawyer explaining that he “needs to get on with his life.”
After twenty hours of deliberation, the jury in Father Hanlon's trial reaches an impasse, and the judge declares a mistrial. Prosecutors quickly announce that they have located a new witness, and will press the charges again.
Father Lavigne, who has already pleaded guilty to child-rape charges, remains the principal suspect in the unsolved death of a 13-year old altar boy, whose body was found floating in the Chicopee River in April 1972.
One priest guilty, one facing a new trial, one the subject of an active investigation—all in one day, all in one state.
During the past ten years, at least 500 American Catholic priests have been accused of sexual assaults on children. One bishop has been publicly charged with pedophilia, and rumors swirl around hundreds of parishes. The scandal of sexual abuse has spawned a new genre of investigative journalism, as books, magazine articles, and television newscasts probe into new allegations, and wonder about the credibility of the American clergy.
Father Stephen J. Rossetti, the author of one such book, interviewed over 1,000 active Catholic Americans for Today’s Parish magazine; the vast majority (87 percent) of those surveyed were clergy, religious, or members of a parish staff. To no one’s surprise, he found: “The phenomenon of clergy-child sexual abuse appears to be damaging seriously the credibility of the Catholic Church to police its own ranks.”
Aside from the children victimized by sexual abuse, the primary victims of the scandal are Catholic priests themselves. Pestered by constant questions, worried about the possibility of false accusations, and saddened by the charges against their fellow priests, they can sense a perceptive shift in the public attitude toward the Catholic clergy. One vital ingredient in pastoral work—the confidence of the parishioners—has been undermined. As Father Rossetti told the Boston Globe, “The clergy take it more personally. If a brother priest is charged they identify with the fact he is a priest, and feel the charge was made against all priests.”
The sexual-abuse scandal has also created a new specialty within the legal profession. Jeffrey Anderson, a Minnesota attorney, took his first case representing a pedophilia victim in 1984, and won a large (albeit undisclosed) judgment from the Archdiocese of Minneapolis. Other victims soon appeared on his doorstep, hoping to file lawsuits against the Catholic Church for abuse they suffered at the hands of a priest years ago. By 1993, Anderson had 200 such cases pending, in courts spread across 27 states.
Anderson is not the only attorney to win a cash settlement. Dozens of dioceses have faced lawsuits from pedophilia victims, and in many cases church authorities have preferred to settle the case quietly, rather than add to the public uproar. No one knows exactly how many settlements have been negotiated, or how much money has been siphoned out of diocesan budgets to pay the accusers’ claims. Bishop John Kinney of Bismarck, North Dakota, the chairman of a special committee set up by the US bishops’ conference to investigate the sex-abuse scandal, admits that he has no reliable figures; no one has been keeping accounts. But Jason Berry, whose book Lead Us Not Into Temptation is the most thorough available study, estimates that American dioceses have paid out at least $500 million in damages. With many cases still pending, and new charges inevitable, Berry estimates that the eventual price of satisfying pedophilia victims will exceed $1 billion.
Questions of due process
The drain on diocesan treasuries, however, is only one of several vexing problems associated with the sex-abuse scandal. Church officials uniformly agree that the diocese should—to the best of its ability—provide spiritual and psychological counseling for the victims of a priest’s misconduct. But what about the rights of an accused priest?
Psychologists report that the victims of childhood sexual abuse often develop severe emotional problems because of the trauma. They may repress all memory of the events, so that their first clear recollection of the abuse comes only after years of silence. They may blame themselves, and develop a self-loathing attitude which produces its own psychiatric symptoms. And they may indulge in self-destructive behavior which undermines their credibility as witnesses.
When an emotionally vulnerable adult comes forward, charging that he was abused as a child, how should diocesan officials respond? They cannot accept every allegation on face value, without honoring the accused priest’s right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Yet if they question the victim too closely, they may create the impression that they are insensitive to his pain, and thus increase his alienation from the Church. When a victim’s attorney asks for a huge cash award— putting a price on the damage his client has suffered—should church lawyers bargain for a lesser payment—implicitly downplaying the damage? Handling the emotional and pastoral needs of the victim requires one approach; investigating the charges and meting out justice requires another.
If a priest is charged with sexual abuse, should church authorities alert the local police? Once the police become involved, the priest will always operate under a cloud of suspicion— whether or not the charges are eventually proven. What are a pastor’s responsibilities, when he hears a serious charge in confidence? Do parents have a right to know if the priest who counsels their children is accused? And if so, would any responsible parent fail to pull his children out of that priest’s programs? The criminal-justice system works by bringing every fact to light; the seal of the confessional, and the demands of pastoral counseling, tug in the opposite direction.
Finally, and most importantly, how can the legal process of claims and counter-claims be balanced against the apostolic work of Christian ministry? Ultimately the Church should offer help to the victims of abuse, forgiveness for the perpetrators, and reconciliation for the communities shaken by these events. That process of reconciliation is itself difficult to reconcile with the parry and thrust of legal negotiations and courtroom maneuvers.
Many victims of childhood sexual abuse have grown away from the Catholic faith, and some have become bitter critics of the Church. Their hostility has fed a growing anti-Catholic trend among the mass media, so that the stories about pedophile priests are often conflated with attacks on Catholic moral teaching. Reporters investigating the sex-abuse phenomenon frequently question whether the assaults on children can be traced to the requirement of priestly celibacy.
Reacting reflexively to such criticism, some loyal Catholics have been quick to dismiss the sex-abuse scandal, charging that the media have grossly exaggerated the problem. It is unquestionably true that the media coverage has tended toward sensationalism, and accusations against Catholic priests have received far more publicity than similar charges leveled against schoolteachers, social workers, or even clergy from other religious denominations. Still the problem cannot be brushed away. At a minimum, Catholics should recognize that some childhood victims of sexual abuse have been grievously wronged—not only by the priests who molested them, but also by the diocesan authorities who allowed accused pedophiles to continue working with children.
After years of delay, and months of harsh public criticism, the US bishops are moving to quell the public scandal. Bishop Kinney’s Committee on Sexual Abuse is holding monthly meetings. Diocesan officials are setting up new policies to handle allegations of sexual abuse—in most cases, promising that whenever credible evidence of misconduct arises, the priest involved will be relieved of his pastoral duties immediately, and not assigned to any parish ministry until the charges are resolved. Several dioceses have set up special telephone lines, ready to receive anonymous complaints 24 hours a day.
Unfortunately, those policies cannot stem the tide of accusations, for two reasons. First, the charges being raised today usually involve events that took place a decade or more ago; adult victims are launching lawsuits based on abuse that occurred when they were children. Second, the sharpest critics point out that the new policies ask victims to report their problems to officials in the diocesan chancery offices. It is precisely in the chancery offices, they argue, that the most serious problems lie.
In Lead Us Not Into Temptation, Jason Berry furnished abundant evidence to explain why critics are so skeptical. Beginning with the case of Father Gilbert Gauthe—who was suspended from priestly duties in the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana, after assaulting a number of altar boys—Berry slowly uncovered a pattern of sexual abuse. Still more troublesome, he found that
through most of the 1980s, church authorities refused to grapple with the problem directly, instead treating each complaint on a quiet, ad hoc basis. Time after time, diocesan officials—often responding to advice from their lawyers—refused to acknowledge that a problem existed.
While the bishops concentrated on “damage control,” Berry found an oddly mixed triumvirate in individuals pressing for a concerted national effort to grapple with the pedophilia problem. Father Thomas Doyle, OP, was a canon lawyer, assigned to the office of the apostolic pro-nuncio, Archbishop Pio Laghi, in Washington. Ray Mouton was a Louisiana lawyer, who became involved with Gauthe case in Lafayette. Father Michael Peterson was a psychiatrist, specializing in the treatment of troubled clergy, who was dying of AIDS as the scandal unfolded. Together, they pushed the US bishops to recognize the growing problem of sexual abuse, and to set up consistent policies to handle the legal, psychiatric, and pastoral implications of the scandal.
For years their efforts were ignored—or worse. In 1987, Bishop A. James Quinn of Ohio wrote to Archbishop Laghi, complaining that Father Doyle’s public statements on the issue were inflaming public opinion. Others charged that the three would-be reformers were merely looking for consulting contracts. Mark Chopko, the general counsel to the US bishops’ conference, later admitted, “There was a feeling that those guys wanted to set themselves up for work.”
“What explains the deception of bishops confronted with child-molesting priests?” Berry wondered. “What is it in the ecclesiastical mind that reaches out to lawyers rather than parents?”
Whatever those factors may be, they are richly illustrated in the case of the former Massachusetts priest, James Porter.
Born in East Boston, Porter entered St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and was ordained as a priest for the Diocese of Fall River in 1960. By all accounts he was a popular priest, especially friendly with the youngsters in the parishes where he was assigned. But within a few months after his first assignment, he was also the subject of quiet complaints.
When these complaints came to the attention of the diocesan vicar general, Msgr. Humberto Medeiros, the young priest was quietly transferred to a new parish. There the complaints began again, and even a second transfer did not stop the allegations. By 1963 Msgr. Medeiros (who would later become Cardinal Medeiros, the Archbishop of Boston) confronted Father Porter with the charges. But the troubled young priest remained on parish assignments.
According to court documents obtained by the Boston Globe, Msgr. Medeiros did not bring Porter’s problems to the attention of Fall River’s Bishop James Connolly until March 1964. By that time the chancery had five solid reports that Father Porter had molested children. Bishop Connolly quickly called him in, ordered him to take a week-long retreat, and then prescribed counseling. But 13 months later, Father Porter had a new parish assignment.
In 1966 he took a long leave, ascribed to illness, at his home in the Boston suburb of Revere. “I don’t know how many kids he grabbed while he was here,” a Revere police officer told the courts years later; “but I’ve got to believe there’s a bunch of them out there.”
By the late 1960s, Porter was shuttling back and forth, between parish assignments and treatment centers. In 1967, while on a rehabilitation assignment in the Boston suburb of Stoneham, he was confronted with new allegations, and his Boston superiors—without consulting the Fall River chancery—sent him to the Paraclete Center in New Mexico, an institution that specializes in treating priests with sexual problems.
After 11 months of treatment at the Paraclete Center, Porter was temporarily assigned to a parish in Houston. An incident there sent him back to the Paraclete Center. In 1969, counselors there believed that they had finally curbed the priest’s impulses. A report to the Fall River diocese, dated February 1969—even while acknowledging the recent failure in Houston—concluded, “If he can learn emotional stability and self-control, he could have a fine future ahead of him.” In August 1969 Porter received a new parish assignment in Bemidji, Minnesota. One year later he was back at the Paraclete Center after yet another report of child molestation.
Finally, in 1970, officials at the Paraclete Center decided that Porter should not be given another parish assignment. Father Fred Bennett wrote to the Fall River chancery, explaining that Porter’s pathology had resisted all treatment. “Moreover, he added, “when he is entangled in these sexual situations, he apparently fails to see the inevitability of discovery of such a large number of youths involved.” The Paraclete counselor thought Porter would be dangerous in any parish, because of the easy access to youngsters and “the lack of surveillance by parents who instinctively trust priests.” He concluded: “I believe, quite strongly, that he should apply for laicization and should never again function as a priest.” After a long process, Porter was finally laicized in 1974.
Having molested dozens of children, in parishes scattered all across the country, James Porter might never have faced a single criminal trial, if not for the efforts of one persistent victim. Frank Fitzpatrick, who had been one of Porter’s victims in Fall River in the early 1960s, had eventually opened a business as a private investigator. Troubled by the shadows in his own past, Fitzpatrick used his professional skills to contact dozens of other victims, and in 1989 he set out to confront the man who had raped him years ago.
Diocesan officials in Fall River refused to cooperate when Fitzpatrick asked for Porter’s birth date and Social Security number. The investigator told the Boston Globe, “The monsignor who called me back said maybe it was best to leave it in the hands of the Lord.” But Fitzpatrick persisted, and in 1992 he traced Porter to St. Paul, where he was now living with a wife and four young children.
Fitzpatrick and his fellow victims hired an attorney, and launched a lawsuit against both Porter and the Diocese of Fall River. (At the same time, he pressed the local prosecutor to file criminal charges, which eventually led to Porter’s guilty pleas.) As they sought more evidence about Porter’s squalid career, the investigators uncovered a shocking fact. Each time he had received a new assignment—at a new parish or a new diocese—Porter had arrived with a clean slate; his new superiors were unaware of his troubled history.
In Fall River, in Revere and Stoneham, Massachusetts; in Houston, Texas; in St. Louis, Missouri; in New Mexico parishes near the Paraclete Center; and finally in Bemidji, Minnesota—Porter’s new clerical superiors knew that he had received treatment for some personal problem. But they did not know what that problem was. Often they suspected alcohol. A colleague in Revere (who subsequently left the priesthood himself) told the Boston Globe, “I thought that he was burned out from work or had hurt himself somehow, and that’s why he was at home. Fall River never told me anything.”
Answering charges from the victims’ lawyers, the Fall River diocese insisted that its officials had “never knowingly allowed Porter to abuse children.” But the diocese had also never alerted pastors—let alone parents—to the dangers that Porter’s presence aroused. Fitzpatrick and his fellow victims charged the diocese with gross negligence, and many observers agreed. At one point in the summer of 1992 the Continental Insurance company, which carries liability insurance for the diocese of Fall River, threatened that it might not pay claims associated with the Porter case. Mary Kay Vyskocil, a lawyer for Continental, explained: “We have conducted an investigation and determined when you have this kind of egregious conduct it is uninsurable as a matter of law.” (The company later relented.)
Naturally, the Porter scandal provoked sensational headlines. During the summer of 1992, the Boston Globe carried 17 separate front-page stories on the Porter investigation. But the diocese stubbornly held its ground. The diocesan newspaper, The Anchor, painstakingly avoided any reference to the case. Then finally, on July 31, The Anchor weighed in with an angry editorial, castigating the media—and still scrupulously avoiding the mention of Porter’s name. The editorial complained, “because of admitted difficulties involving a very few clergy, the media propose to alter the church’s way of functioning. Misleading information, half-truths and insinuations have permeated practically every newspaper story concerning cases of clergy misconduct.”
At the peak of the public furor, Bishop Sean O’Malley was installed as the head of the Fall River diocese, which had been operating without a bishop during the feverish summer controversy. The new bishop quickly earned the goodwill of Porter’s victims, by pledging whatever help the diocese could offer. At his installation ceremony, when reporters asked whether he thought Porter should be prosecuted, he responded simply: “I think priests who go through red lights should get tickets. There should be no immunity just because they are priests.”
Still, controversy would not leave the Fall River diocese. In September 1992, an angry father called the local press, complaining that a priest had made sexual advances at his 14-year old son. “As far as diocesan authorities are concerned, they show no cooperation or compassion,” said the man— who said he wanted to remain anonymous for his son’s sake. “I feel we are adversaries.”
The complaint did not match the severity of the Porter case; the man says only that the priest engaged his son in sex-oriented discussions. But the chancery’s reaction was familiar. The local pastor denied the man’s complaints, although he admitted that the accused priest had recently returned from a counseling center. The diocesan attorney refused to answer press inquiries. And the accuser had not been able to make an appointment with chancery officials. Local police officials say they have no reason to doubt the boy’s story.
All across the United States, lawyers are quietly contacting diocesan officials, telling about clients who have been sexually abused by Catholic priests, and looking toward a negotiated settlement. Church officials still have not found a satisfactory method of handling these delicate cases. Mark Chopko, the counsel to the US bishops conference, takes a stance that would infuriate many victims: “Lawyers should stay out of this business as much as possible. We are talking about a process of healing and reconciliation. That is what churches do best.”
In a June 1993 message to the US bishops, Pope John Paul promised his help in the search for a solution to the problem of sexual abuse. As the New York Times reported: “The pope’s message was the latest sign that the Church’s leadership is abandoning its previous policy of treating sexual abuse by priests as a matter for individual bishops to deal with locally. Instead, both the pope and the American hierarchy are increasingly addressing the problem as one that requires a nationwide, or even church-wide, shift in policies.”
But the problem of priestly sexual misconduct cannot be solved by instituting a new policy, regardless of its scope. In fact, any policy put forward by Church officials will fail to satisfy the alienated victims of sexual abuse. The problem, those victims insist, comes from within the Church bureaucracy; anyone who approaches that bureaucracy will be frustrated. At a June 1993 press conference sponsored by the Chicago-based Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP), the group’s founder Barbara Blame encouraged victims to ignore the new policies, and shun involvement with the emerging diocesan programs. “We are here with a warning to other victims,” she said. “Learn from our pain. Do not report your abuse to church authorities.
In New York, Cardinal John O’Connor offered new guidelines for his own archdiocese, but he also pointed to the spiritual core of the issue: “It is long since time to get down on our knees, to beat our breasts, to ask for God’s mercy.”
Philip F. Lawler is the editor of Catholic World Report.