Sex Abuse of Youth by Catholic Priests

By David Wright
NPR All Things Considered
May 21, 1992

Robert Siegel, host:

This next story is about sexual abuse of children, a subject that some listeners may find disturbing. It's a story that's focused many people's attention on the issue of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. More than 40 men and women have accused a former Massachusetts priest, James Porter, of sexually molesting them when they were children in his parish. The alleged victims say church officials knew early on about allegations of Porter's pedophilia, but did not do enough to stop him and attempted a cover-up. Prosecutors in two states are now investigating the allegations. Some of the material that is potentially the most damaging was collected by a private investigator who's also one of Father Porter's alleged victims. David Wright of member station WBUR reports.

David Wright reporting:

Frank Fitzpatrick of Cranston, Rhode Island, has vivid memories of the man he knew as Father Porter. When Fitzpatrick was in fifth grade in 1960, James Porter was 25 and on his first assignment out of the seminary. Fitzpatrick recalls that at the time, Porter was easily the most popular priest at Saint Mary's School in North Attleboro, Massachusetts.

Frank Fitzpatrick (Alleged Sexual Abuse Victim): He'd come into the classrooms and he'd visit the classes and he'd play with the kids, he'd play sports with the kids and pay attention to them and take them places and do things with them. My impression of this guy was--I thought he was wonderful.

Wright: Fitzpatrick was an altar boy at the time. He says he was drawn to the church in part because of the example he saw in Father Porter.

Fitzpatrick: I wanted to become a priest back then because of--I--I thought so much of him. I--I said, 'Wow, if this is the way a priest can be, this is--I'd like to be like that. I'd like to be somebody who really cares about people and who really cares about kids,' and it was all for one purpose, unfortunately.

Wright: Fitzpatrick says when he was 12 his childhood illusions about Father Porter were shattered when the priest invited him to see a Boston Celtics game. Instead of going to the game, he says, Porter drove to his parents' home in Revere, Massachusetts. There, Fitzpatrick says, Porter offered him a piece of mincemeat pie. Fitzpatrick says he remembers thinking it strange that Porter did not serve himself a piece.

Fitzpatrick: The next thing I knew, I woke up and this guy was a--was on top of me--laying on top of me--Porter, I'm talking about. And the most--most vivid impression that I have is of his--his breathing, of his sexual rhythmic breathing right in my ear, and he was--you know, he was having anal sex with me.

Wright: Fitzpatrick says he remembers feeling guilty and ashamed about what had happened. He told no one--not even his parents. And he never went to Father Porter for confession again. But in February of 1990, Fitzpatrick decided he would now be Porter's confessor. Twenty-seven years after he had last seen the priest, Fitzpatrick telephoned laymen James Porter, who now lives with a wife and four children in Minnesota. Fitzpatrick was in therapy then. He says he taped the call so he could play it for his therapy group.

James Porter (Alleged Abuser): (Taped) Hello? Fitzpatrick: (Taped) Hello, this is--Father Porter?

Porter: (Taped) Yes.

Fitzpatrick: (Taped) Hi. This is Frank Fitzpatrick...

Porter: (Taped) Yeah.

Fitzpatrick: (Taped) ...from North Attleboro.

Porter: (Taped) Yeah.

Fitzpatrick: (Taped) And I just--what happened to me was I just recalled some things that went on in North Attleboro. It just came back to me this past--this past year and a half or so.

Porter: (Taped) Yeah.

Fitzpatrick: (Taped) So that's why I--I called to alert your wife to events that had gone on back then.

Porter: (Taped) Oh?

Wright: It was the first of four separate conversations Fitzpatrick was to record with James Porter in 1990 and 1991. As an insurance adjuster and a licensed private detective, Fitzpatrick was careful about how he taped the calls. Before each call he states on tape the number he's calling and the number he's calling from, along with the date and time. These details are corroborated by his long distance phone bills, and the number in Minnesota matches that given by directory assistance for James Porter. Fitzpatrick placed the calls from his home in Rhode Island where it's legal for one party to tape a call without the other party's consent. In Minnesota it's also legal.

Fitzpatrick: (Taped) The reason why--the reason why--basically, why I--I called is because, you know, as you can imagine, I have extreme anger toward you and I want you to know even it though I'm--I'm--doesn't--doesn't sound like it in my voice--I do have this extreme, extreme anger toward you for what have--for what you did to me.

Porter: (Taped) I don't blame you, you know.

Fitzpatrick: (Taped) And--you know... Porter: (Taped) Oh, yeah.

Fitzpatrick: (Taped) know, it's just something I had to get out.

Porter: (Taped) Yes. I agree with that.

Fitzpatrick: (Taped) And--and...

Porter: (Taped) And I was just trying to--I mean, hoping, you know, you'll be--you know, the Christian that you are, you should be happy how I'm turning out, if you know what I mean.

Wright: Porter says on the tapes he does not remember Fitzpatrick specifically, and he sounds somewhat guarded throughout. But he answers Fitzpatrick's questions. For example, Fitzpatrick asks, 'When did you stop molesting children?' Porter: 'In '67.' Fitzpatrick: 'How many children were there, 50, 100?' Porter: 'Whether it was 1, 10 or 100, the point is it happened. That's the big thing.'

Fitzpatrick asks why he started. Porter describes how he had had no sexual experience before arriving in North Attleboro. Porter: (Taped) I have to be careful how I say things over the phone...

Fitzpatrick: (Taped) Sure.

Porter: (Taped) experience in matters, okay?

Fitzpatrick: (Taped) Okay. Yeah.

Porter: (Taped) And I had a tremendous, like we say, fondness of--of younger kids--not in a bad sense.

Fitzpatrick: (Taped) Yeah.

Porter: (Taped) And then I went down there since I didn't have any, you know, experience, right?

Fitzpatrick: (Taped) Yeah.

Porter: (Taped) When I got familiar--play--you know, fooling around or playing, you know, or joking, that first sexual--I enjoyed it, happened to be with children. Didn't even rea...

Fitzpatrick: (Taped) Yeah.

Porter: And--and that's how I reacted.

Wright: Porter talks repeatedly about how he was, in his words, 'hiding behind the cloth.'

Porter: (Taped) I--subconscious--I don't know--I always think it's just like a little kid getting away with things or someone's covering up or protecting them. Well, then not even deliberately you do--you do it and you think I'm not going to get in any trouble...

Fitzpatrick: (Taped) Yeah.

Porter: (Taped) And no one's going to suspect me. And no one's ever going to feel sorry for poor little me, you know what I mean?

Fitzpatrick: (Taped) Yeah. Yeah.

Porter: (Taped) And now I found out like hell they would--in plain English. I have...

Wright: On the tapes, Porter says church officials learned of his pedophilia as early as 1963. He maintains that the bishop who headed the Fall River diocese sent him to a private hospital for electric shock treatment, obliterating much of his memory. And he says the church assigned him to duties where he was less likely to encounter children on a regular basis. But in 1967 when his problems with children persisted, Porter says, he was sent to a private church facility in New Mexico where his therapist eventually determined he should leave the priesthood. He talks of how it was necessary to obtain a special dispensation from the Vatican in order for him to become a layman in the early 1970s and later be married in the Catholic Church. And on the tapes the former priest appeals to his alleged victim's loyalty and compassion as a Catholic.

Porter: (Taped) ...know what that means anymore. My wife, myself and my family--we say the family rosary every day, okay?

Fitzpatrick: (Taped) Okay.

Porter: (Taped) I don't know if that still means anything to you or not. I hope it does.

Fitzpatrick: (Taped) And--and did your wife--did your wife discuss it... Porter: (Taped) ...tell them I got a friend I want remembered, okay?

Fitzpatrick: (Taped) Okay.

Porter: (Taped) And we'll include you in it and hoping that--like with me, none of us would--can do anything without the grace of God. I know that.

Fitzpatrick: (Taped) Okay.

When he appealed to me as a Christian, I think he was just using that again--using religion against me once more. He'd used it before as priest and now he was using it saying that he hoped he hadn't--that I hadn't given up on being a Catholic and that--Christian that I was, that I would forgive him. But I was disgusted. I was really disgusted by that--that he'd have the nerve to rape somebody and then--then say the rosary for them.

Wright: Frank Fitzpatrick's story is one of many. Since he and eight other alleged victims went to the media, 35 others who grew up in Porter's three Massachusetts parishes have come forward alleging that they too were molested by the former priest. The allegations are receiving widespread attention, perhaps because so many people have come forward and because of the possibility church officials knew early on of the charges.

Although Roman Catholicism is not the only denomination whose clergy have faced charges of sexual abuse, the allegations have prompted many to question how effectively the Catholic Church handles such charges and whether particular policies, like celibacy, may contribute to the problem.

Father Steve Rossetti (Psychologist): We certainly have our share of men who are sexually repressed just as the society has its share. Do we have more? You can speculate. I doubt it.

Wright: Father Steve Rossetti is a psychologist and Catholic priest who wrote "Slayer of the Soul," a book about child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. He says the church, like other institutions, recently has begun to confront the problem of sexual abuse. Since 1988, the American Catholic Church has adopted voluntary guidelines for reporting priests to civil authorities when there's reason to suspect possible abuse.

Rossetti: Is it an institutional problem? I think we as a church are in--in the business of healing, and so when one of our ministers causes hurt, that's contrary to what we're trying to do. So it becomes an institutional problem. We need to respond to these cases because we're here to help people--not hurt them.

Wright: There are no studies of how many priests may be sexual abusers, but Kathleen Sands, who teaches religion at the University of Massachusetts and who studies sexual relationships between priests and women, see sexual transgression as something enabled by the very nature of priesthood.

Kathleen Sands (University of Massachusetts): You tend to get abuses--sexualization of power and the abuse of power--in any profession where you have two things: one, intimate contact between the professional and the client; and two, a marked imbalance of power. You have both of those things within the priesthood.

Wright: Moreover, Sands points out, priests differ in one major respect from, say, psychotherapists or teachers. That difference, she believes, makes any sexual contact something very difficult for the church to acknowledge. Sands: Once he takes a vow of celibacy, the only sex a priest can have is sinful. So that it all becomes leveled out. None of it can be talked about. Not--none of the nuances can be made between what kinds of sexual activity are really humane and adult and mature and what kinds are really exploitative and destructive.

Wright: Sands says while it's unlikely celibacy causes abuse, it can skew the population of people who elect to become priests. Many, she says, may choose a life of celibacy because they have strong conflicts about sex and sexuality. Those conflicts are reinforced by the celibacy rule because the church can only view a priest's sexual activities as either sickness or sin. The result, Sands says, is that the church becomes like a dysfunctional family, hiding from tough sexual issues and hoping they'll just go away. But Father Steve Rossetti rejects any link between celibacy and sexual abuse.

Rossetti: The operative phrase in our society, I think, is that--that sex is our most important need. I mean, that's--if you don't have sex, people think that you're either crazy or you're going to--going mad. But in fact, there are many people who live an authentic and honest life who do not have a sexual relationship. So that's an American fa--fallacy, I think, that you have to have sex. And I think it drives a lot of our crazy thinking. Wright: Rossetti says he thinks the church could improve the way it addresses sexual issues, but he thinks society could do better as well. The Porter allegations may force the issue. Prosecutors in Massachusetts and Rhode Island are investigating the possibility of filing criminal charges, and a lawyer representing some of the alleged victims may proceed with civil charges if the church does not agree to his request for compensatory damages. There is a statute of limitations for sexual abuse in both civil and criminal cases, but the time limit may not be applicable if the alleged perpetrator leaves the state.

Former Priest James Porter has refused NPR's repeated requests for an interview. The diocese of Fall River has issued a one-paragraph statement saying Porter has not functioned in the diocese for over 21 years, that the diocese regrets the manner in which the allegations were made public, and that this serious matter will be handled with compassion and reverence for all. For legal reasons, church officials have declined further comment. However, after the story broke, Boston's Bernard Cardinal Law admonished a group of seminarians about the tragedy of a priest betraying the sacred trust of priestly service. Without mentioning any specific cases, the cardinal called priests who abuse children 'the rare exception.'

For National Public Radio, this is David Wright in Boston.

Siegel: It's "All Things Considered."


















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