Porter personnel files show what church knew
By Linda Matchan and Stephen Kurkjian
October 21, 1992
Catholic Church officials permitted James R. Porter to serve as a priest in numerous parishes in four states - in close proximity to children - even though they were fully aware of his habitual sexual molestation of youths, according to Porter's diocesan personnel records.
The records, which were obtained by The Boston Globe, also contain evidence that Porter misled his superiors about the success of his rehabilitation, at one point reassuring his bishop that he had overcome his pedophilia.
"Believe me, I am striving to be priestly," Porter wrote in a handwritten letter to Fall River Bishop James L. Connolly in late April 1964, a month after Porter had been suspended from the Fall River Diocese and was ordered to take a leave. "I am feeling much better and am doing very well, positively. . . . There have been many temptations as you can imagine, but thank God, with His grace, I have handled them well," Porter wrote. "If this was before, I am afraid I might have fallen."
The next day, Porter molested two youths in a New Bedford parish, according to his indictment last month on 46 counts of sexual molestation.
The personnel records, which contain detailed notations describing concern among diocesan leaders about the widespread allegations against Porter, also provide new evidence that Porter was accused of molesting children at a parish in Stoneham, in Houston and at several other parishes in New Mexico and Minnesota where he also has been accused of molestation. The records, kept in a "vault file" at the Fall River Diocese, were among the items subpoenaed by the Bristol County grand jury that indicted Porter.
Porter left the priesthood in 1974, more than a decade after the church was first told that he was molesting children.
Throughout much of the 1960s, when Porter was a curate assigned to parishes in the Fall River Diocese, his superiors, including then-Msgr. - and later Cardinal - Humberto Medeiros, acquiesced in his reassignment to other parishes, despite detailed knowledge of the extensive number of allegations already lodged against him.
Among the dozens of pages of records reviewed by the Globe, is a notation that Msgr. Medeiros told Bishop James Connolly in 1964 that Porter had molested "30 or 40" youths, and was known among high school boys in North Attleborough as "the horn."
The documents reflect that, for a number of reasons including a fear of scandal, a reliance on misleading medical information and concern for Porter's welfare, the Fall River Diocese did not immediately move to expel Porter as it grappled with the most extraordinary case of child abuse ever to confront it.
The records provide the most complete picture of how the Catholic Church, which has been rocked by the Porter scandal since it surfaced last May, handled the case while it was unfolding during the 1960s.
The records show that, after first being told Porter was abusing youths in North Attleborough and Fall River, Bishop Connolly was informed at least four more times that Porter had molested youths at other parishes before discussing the possibility of asking Porter to leave the priesthood.
Under the canons of Catholic law in force at the time, Bishop Connolly could have moved to expel Porter for committing a sex act with a minor under the age of 16.
What emerges from Porter's files is a portrait of a young and energetic priest of average intelligence who graduated from St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore in 1960 and came highly recommended "as a manly, genuine young man" to his first assignment as priest at St. Mary's Church in North Attleborough.
Despite his reputation, witness statements from victims have indicated he began molesting children within weeks, and that a few parents complained to other priests at St. Mary's about Porter's activities. In 1963 one father even went to see Msgr. Medeiros, then chancellor of the Fall River Diocese, to voice his concerns. Later that year, Porter was pulled out of St. Mary's church and quietly transferred to Sacred Heart Church in Fall River.
The records show that Bishop Connolly first learned that Porter was molesting children on March 21, 1964, from Msgr. Medeiros. Bishop Connolly's notes state that Msgr. Medeiros told Bishop Connolly that he had been visited the day before by Rev. Edward Booth of St. Mary's church and a boy's father. Despite his transfer, Porter was still coming back to visit boys in North Attleborough, and "wanting to have his back rubbed, then going on from there," Bishop Connolly's notes say.
Msgr. Medeiros told Bishop Connolly that there were "30 or 40 involved" and that Porter had a reputation among high school boys for his sexual lust.
"Much concern among parents," the memo noted. At Bishop Feehan High School in Attleborough, "they called him the horn. Has the horn tackled you yet?"
In a hastily written memo dated March 21, Bishop Connolly records his notes of an interview, apparently with Porter, indicating Porter's denial of the charges. "Has tried to keep away from No. Att." it says. "Doctoring with Flanagan. Sedatives." Other correspondence reveals that Porter sought treatment from Dr. Norris Flanagan of Wellesley's Wiswall Hospital.
Bishop Connolly was obviously disturbed by the allegations. He ordered Porter home to his parents' in Revere, and told him to wait there while he conducted a thorough investigation. Porter, in another document, stated later that he felt he had been sent home "until the scandal had died down."
Bishop Connolly then called Rev. Armando Annunziato, another priest at St. Mary's church, and interviewed him about the allegations. As Bishop Connolly noted in a memo dated March 24, 1964, Rev. Annunziato told him that he and Booth had questioned Porter about allegations of sexual abuse the previous June. Porter acknowledged to them that he had had "tempts" (temptations) and not actual acts, according to Bishop Connolly's memo.
The notes indicate Rev. Annunziato told Bishop Connolly that since his discussion with Porter in June, Rev. Annunziato had learned that Porter had been involved with an "altar boy setup," molesting at least nine boys.
In Revere, Porter was placed under Dr. Flanagan's care while he lived with his parents. That summer, while on a day trip to New Hampshire, Porter was picked up by State Police and accused of molesting a youth. Bishop Connolly was informed of the incident, which, according to his notes, involved a 13-year old "non-Cath" boy.
Bishop Connolly then ordered that Porter seek hospitalization. He was diagnosed as suffering from "endogenous depression" and, for the next 13 months, he was given treatment, including electroshock therapy at Wiswall Hospital.
But in September 1965, Porter's father prevailed on Bishop Connolly to take Porter back into the Diocese. Assured by an optimistic report from Flanagan that indicated Porter had "simmered down," Bishop Connolly accepted Porter back. He assigned him to St. James Parish in New Bedford, working at a hospital there.
He stayed in New Bedford for more than a year and a half, but records show that in April 1967 he apparently molested two other children. Immediately after hearing of the allegations, Bishop Connnolly ordered Porter home.
After a few months in Revere, a priest at a Catholic church in Stoneham permitted Porter to say Mass there. But after a short time, officials were told that Porter was molesting children there too, according to church records. The priest reported the incidents to the Boston Archdiocese. Without consulting officials in Fall River, Rev. Paul Shanley of the Boston Archdiocese ordered that Porter be sent to a treatment center in New Mexico, operated by the Servants of the Paraclete Order.
At the time Paraclete was one of the few facilities used by the Catholic Church to treat priests suffering from mental health problems. As the priests recovered from their problems, it was customary for them to take on temporary assignments in churches throughout New Mexico and beyond. During his three years at the Paraclete Center, the church records show that Porter took on assignments in New Mexico, Texas and Minnesota. As it turned out, he would suffer relapses at several parishes and be sent back to Paraclete at least four times for further treatment.
In June 1968, 10 months after Porter arrived at Paraclete, Bishop Connolly received the first word of how the young priest ws responding to treatment. It was not optimistic. Wrote Rev. James B. Feit, head of the treatment center: "The one thing in Father Porter's favor, without which there would be scant hope for his eventual return to the ministry, is his overwhelming good will."
Still, by the next month, Father Feit reported there was "real hope" for Porter's return to an active ministry and by December Father Feit concluded that Porter had progressed to such a point that he deserved to be given a probationary assignment - in Houston.
But two months later, Father Feit informed Bishop Connolly that Porter had "lapsed into former failing" during his assignment in Houston. Porter returned to Paraclete and resumed his treatment with Dr. John F. McCarthy, an Albuquerque psychiatrist. In the ensuing months, Porter was allowed to serve at parishes throughout New Mexico. During his stints at at least two, Truth or Consequences and Las Vegas, he was found to be molesting children and was immediately returned to the Paraclete treatment center, according to the church files.
Despite those relapses, Paraclete officials continued to hold out hope that Porter could be of service as a priest. In August 1969, they sent him to its treatment facility in northern Minnesota and from there he was allowed him to accept an assignment at a church in Bemidji.
Church officials there said they were given no indication before accepting Porter that he had been treated for pedophilia at the Paraclete Treatment Center. In September 1970, 13 months after being giving Porter the assignment, church officials were told that he had sexually abused two parish children. Last July, 11 more alleged victims came forward saying Porter had abused them.
From Bemidji, Porter wound up at another Paraclete treatment center in St. Louis. There, for the first time, a psychologist determined that Porter's sexual problems were motivated by his celibacy and recommended that he leave the priesthood.
That recommendation was relayed to the Fall River archdiocese, under whose jurisdiction Porter still fell, and the officials at the Paraclete headquarters in New Mexico. The Vatican would ultimately approve Porter's peititon to return to lay life in 1974.
Paraclete's initial response when the subject of Porter's leaving the priesthood was raised was to empathize with Porter.
"I think that your present position of understanding without condoning any of the mistakes of the past is the best position," Rev. Feit wrote to the new bishop of Fall River, Daniel A. Cronin in February 1971. "In this way, Father Porter will continue to have the support and the encouragement of the church to make a rational and mature decision in regard to his future."