Father Porter: Remembering the Evil

By Rick Foster
Sun Chronicle
May 13, 2012

Convicted former Catholic priest James Porter stands during break in testimony in Bristol County Superior Court, in Taunton in 2004. (AP Photo/Keith Nordstrom, Pool)

20 years ago this week, he was brought to justice

John Robitaille sits at his desk at the Larry Friedman Center for Entrepreneurship at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, and looks back over a lifetime of achievement: starting several businesses, running on the Republican ticket for Rhode Island governor, inspiring students to innovate.

But within the business lab's sunny rooms, few would guess that the dynamic 63-year-old former North Attleboro resident had once been at the center of a controversy that would rock the foundations of the Catholic Church - and liberate hundreds of people who were abused as children by sexual predators hiding behind the robes of priests.

"I dislike the word victim," said Robitaille, one of the original accusers who went public 20 years ago about how former St. Mary's Church curate Father James Porter sexually abused them and others during the early 1960s. "I'm a survivor. We were all survivors."

This month marks the 20th anniversary of Porter's arrest for those long ago crimes that for many still leave psychological scars.

Porter, who was in his 20s when he served as a priest for 18 months at St. Mary's in North Attleboro, died of cancer in 2005 after early release in January 2004 from an 18- to 20-year prison term on sex abuse charges. At the time, he was awaiting a civil commitment hearing that would have extended his confinement for being a sexually dangerous person.

James Porter victim John Robitaille, now Executive Director of the Larry Friedman International Center of Entrepreneurship at Johnson & Wales University in Providence. (Staff photo by Mike George)

Prison officials said he exhibited a voracious sexual appetite even behind bars.

The prison sentence was the result of charges leveled by 28 adults who said they had been abused as children.

The incidents had lay buried for decades among victims until private investigator and Porter abuse victim Frank Fitzpatrick confronted the former priest in 1992 and taped a phone call in which the ex-cleric admitted to abusing as many as 100 boys and girls. Other estimates have Porter raping more than 200 children over his lifetime.

The beginning of the scandal

The Porter case was only the tip of the iceberg of clerical abuse that eventually expanded to include hundreds of priests and a major coverup scandal with a rising number lawsuits that threatened to bankrupt the church.

Among the most damning Porter revelations were that church officials who knew the seriousness of the charges against the priest, transferred him from parish to parish, rather than dismiss him from the priesthood.

Porter was assigned to St. Mary's after being ordained in 1960. But when complaints arose, he was sent to another parish in Fall River, then was transferred again to New Bedford. In 1969, he was moved to a parish in Bemidji, Minn. All along the way, according to church records and news reports, Porter abused children.

Porter was a pedophile, and superiors knew or suspected. At least twice before he formally left the priesthood in 1974, he was sent to treatment centers.

Porter eventually married and had four children of his own before Fitzpatrick caught up with him, still living in Minnesota.

The ex-priest pleaded guilty to multiple abuse charges in 1993. Prior to the sentencing, 68 of Porter's victims agreed to drop their lawsuit against the church in return for a reported settlement of $5 million.

Ultimately, the church would settle 131 claims related to Porter, making it the largest sex abuse scandal in history until new allegations emerged a decade later in Boston involving defrocked priest Paul Shanley.

Robitaille, the second oldest of three children, was 11 and attending fifth grade at St. Mary's School when he met Porter. The young, energetic priest was instantly popular and seemed to have a way with kids as supervisor for CYO sports activities and coordinator for the church's altar boys.

"Our pastor was an older man, and people were really impressed by the energy of this young guy," Robitaille said.

But underneath the black suit and clerical collar, Robitaille said, lived a monster. An altar boy whose family life revolved around the church, Robitaille became one of the predator priest's "favorites."

"This ... would attack me right after Mass," said Robitaille, who remembers being terrified of the priest.

Sexual assaults occurred in whatever place seemed to be convenient, Robitaille said, from the church basement to a cottage on the Cape to which the priest had access.

"I couldn't get away from the guy," he said.

On occasion, Porter would stop his car and beckon to the 11-year-old or call his home and ask him to come to the rectory. Robitaille said he was never physically threatened, but he heard stories that the priest would take off his belt to intimidate other children.

Robitaille said he never informed his parents or his siblings about the attacks.

Porter warned him not to tell, Robitaille said, and he obeyed. In the world of the 1960s, he said, the word of a priest was considered second only to God's.

"The power of a priest was immense," Robitaille said. "We were taught that the priest was the embodiment of God on Earth."

Eventually, decades later, dozens more Porter victims stepped forward - some demanding prosecution, others supporting those suffering the worst consequences of repressed memories.

Survivors began to hold regular support meetings in private at a building on Elm Street in North Attleboro.

"When I'd attend, there'd be 100 people there," Robitaille said.

Robitaille became the public face of the survivors early on, after a lawyer representing the group asked for a spokesman to step forward.

One of his first duties was to issue a brief statement when he and several other victims appeared to file the initial complaint at the North Attleboro police station.

"There were remote TV trucks everywhere," Robitaille said. "It was unbelievable."

Unreal, too, was the world into which the sudden and shocking disclosures about the pervert ex-priest spilled.

"They were difficult days for everyone in the Diocese of Fall River," diocesan spokesman John Kearns said.

At the time, Bishop James L. Connolly had been transferred to Hartford, Conn., leaving behind a leadership vacuum that hampered the church's response.

Bishop Sean O'Malley was quickly appointed to fill the void.

O'Malley - now the cardinal of Boston - met with victims, arranged a settlement and pushed through a series of reforms intended to protect children and lead the diocese out of its blackest period. But it would take time.

Roderick MacLeish, the Boston attorney who would become famous as the lawyer who worked with Porter's victims to bring the ex-cleric before a judge, said attitudes about religious leaders were far different before 1992.

Priests were almost universally revered, he said, and any suggestion that a cleric would abuse a child seemed unthinkable.

MacLeish remembers his own initial skepticism when he received the first call from his office that a half-dozen adults who said they had been abused as children by Porter were asking to see him.

"It was hard to accept," MacLeish said. "But I met with them, and after I did, I knew they were telling the truth."

After a handful of victims agreed to go public with their charges, MacLeish interviewed witnesses, asked questions and sought to bring pressure on the Bristol County District Attorney's Office to prosecute.

On May 7, 1992, a Boston TV station telecast interviews with eight Porter victims who for the first time made public their allegations against the ex-priest.

Although the church officially deplored priestly abuse, the sensational charges didn't sit well with the church hierarchy or with skeptics, who greeted some of the victims with doubt and ridicule.

"It was a scary time," MacLeish said.

Soon after the sensational allegations became public, then Boston Cardinal Bernard Law called down the power of God on the media - specifically The Boston Globe - who he said were fixated on the case and were not reporting positive news about the church.

Some doubters did more than get angry. MacLeishe recalls that someone discharged a small firearm outside his house. No one was injured.

Ultimately, Porter was convicted in Minnesota in 1992 for sexually molesting a babysitter of one of his children.

The following year, he reached a plea deal in Massachusetts under which he would serve an 18 to 20 year sentence for his crimes of sexual abuse while a priest. However, he was scheduled to be released in January 2004 because of statutory time credits and sentencing in effect at the time of his crimes.

Porter would never go free, though, because officials sought to hold him through a civil process as a sexually dangerous person. He died while in legal limbo.

The true heroes of the Porter case were the victims, MacLeish said, who risked ostracism within and without the church to bring forward the awful truth.

"The people who knew what happened and came forth saved thousands of lives of people they will never know," MacLeish said.

Porter was the first major prosecution to reveal the systematic abuse of trust by a Roman Catholic priest, and with it the massive coverup of abuse by higher church officials, MacLeish said.

Without the Porter case, the abuses of priests might eventually have come to light. But they also might have continued to go unnoticed or remained the topic of hushed conversations and unsubstantiated rumors.

For the Roman Catholic Church in New England, Porter was only the beginning of damaging revelations that expanded to touch priests in the Boston area. Law departed for the Vatican, and was replaced by O'Malley who would again be charged with damage control.

The Fall River Diocese, under O'Malley, had already shown leadership in protecting children and policing its priests and volunteers with a detailed list of policies and procedures. But too few Catholic leaders in other domains, including Boston, followed its lead.

Beginning with O'Malley's reforms, priests in the Fall River Diocese accused of sexual abuse were to be placed on leave until allegations were investigated and could not simply be transferred to other parishes.

Any alleged crimes were to be reported to police and all diocesan priests, teachers and volunteers had to submit to a criminal background check. A special office was set up within the diocese to insure compliance and to oversee the protection of children.

"I would not argue that good things came out of Porter," said the Fall River Diocese's Kearns. "But due to its early experience, the diocese probably emerged better prepared to deal with such issues."

As allegations of priestly abuse multiplied across the country and other challenges to religious authority emerged, the larger church paid a heavy price. Membership declined and parish after parish closed or merged.

In Massachusetts, alone, Catholic church membership dwindled 15 percent from 1990 to 2008, according to the American Religious Identification Survey 2008.

The decline is second only to that in Rhode Island, Montana and Louisiana, at 16 percent.

The situation nationwide is equally severe. In 2008, alone, membership declined by 400,000 according to a Pew study, and more than 1,000 parishes have closed since 1995. The number of priests has also fallen precipitously.

Other religious groups, meanwhile, have also suffered significant declines.

Just how large the issue of priestly misconduct looms in the decline of the Catholic church is hard to say.

In a 2004 Notre Dame study, 85 percent of Catholics interviewed listed sexual abuse as the top challenge facing the church, followed by the failure of Catholic bishops to take sufficient action. But at the same time, 80 percent said the sexual abuse scandal did not have any effect on their church attendance.

Nonetheless, many parishioners remain angry, both at their church and at the media for rehashing the scandals over and over.

"It's a complex issue," said Nancy Ammerman, professor of sociology at Boston University. "There is clearly outrage and an erosion of trust, but the connection to church attendance isn't so clear."

For Robitaille, the world was a different place after being victimized by Porter.

The memories drove him from the church. The trauma was so severe that he avoided even driving past St. Mary's Church. He pushed the nightmarish thoughts back as far into his consciousness as he could.

"Anything that reminded me of it, I'd avoid," he said. "Change the subject."

Then one day, 30 years after allegations against Porter first surfaced in his hometown, Robitaille heard a news report on radio station WBZ while driving.

Frank Fitzpatrick, with whom he had attended Catholic school in North Attleboro, was blowing the lid off Porter's dirty little secret.

"I had to stop my car," Robitaille said.

The emotions came flooding back.

As he listened to the news broadcast, Robitaille felt at once horrified and liberated.

As a child victim, Robitaille had felt threatened and terribly alone. Now, even as he relived the old nightmares, he knew he no longer was.

Despite his experiences, Robitaille hasn't let the demons of the past consume his life. An energetic businessman, he operated his own video production company and other enterprises.

His stature in the Rhode Island Republican Party led to a run for governor in 2010.

He now helps college students incubate business ideas that could become the next Facebook or Zipcar.

Loyal support from his wife, Lynda, and the work of a therapist helped Robitaille reconcile his thoughts about those terrible days under the domination of Father Porter.

Robitaille said he no longer dwells on the past, although he says the story needs to be re-told so that the danger of a priest or other adult violating the trust of a child will not be forgotten.

As for Porter, Robitaille says he's forgiven. There's no point, he says, in hanging onto feelings that for too long overshadowed his life.

But there's one thing Robitaille won't let go of. That's the prayer that in a post-Porter world, never again will anyone - priest, coach, scout leader - feel beyond the gaze of public scrutiny that they can get away with abusing a child.








Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.