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Sins of the Father

updated 07/27/1992 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/27/1992 01:00AM

FOR YEARS FRANK FITZPATRICK SUFFERED bouts of depression that both tormented and perplexed him. After all, he was happily married, the father of two boys and successful as an insurance investigator from Cranston, R.I. "I was feeling rotten about myself, and I did not know why," says Fitzpatrick. Then, three years ago, the source of his anguish became clear to him. One day, for no particular reason, he had a memory of mincemeat pie, a dish he had disliked since boyhood. In a Proustian burst of free association, he suddenly remembered an incident that had taken place when he was a 12-year-old altar boy attending St. Mary's School, a Roman Catholic parochial school in North Attleboro, Mass. He recalled being served mincemeat pie by Father Jim Porter, a parish priest, getting drowsy and falling asleep—and awakening to a nightmare. "I was waking up, coming out of a drugged state," says Fitzpatrick, now 42, "and Porter was on top of me, raping me."

Until that moment, Fitzpatrick had been repressing the memory for nearly 30 years. Now he could not forget it. Since then, his campaign to make public his allegations has prompted scores of middle-aged men and women across the country to come forward with similar charges of abuse against Porter. It has become the latest and most notorious such scandal to rock the Roman Catholic Church, which since 1985 has reportedly paid out $400 million to settle sexual abuse cases involving priests. "I began to think about what he had done," says Fitzpatrick, "and I knew I had to do something."

But before launching that campaign, he used his skills as an investigator to find Porter. Fitzpatrick says that when he contacted St. Mary's Church and the governing diocese, officials told him they had no information on Porter's whereabouts, other than the fact that he had left the priesthood and was believed to be living in the Midwest. Eventually, however, Fitzpatrick traced him to the town of Oakdale, Minn., where the ex-priest, now 57, was living with his wife and four children. "I figured I at least had to alert his family," says Fitzpatrick. "I could have let it go for myself, but not for other children."

On four occasions, says Fitzpatrick, he called Porter to confront him with his allegations. During the conversations—which Fitzpatrick secretly taped—between February 1990 and September 1991, a man who says he is Porter sounds disarmingly candid and sympathetic. The man speaking on the tape admits to abusing children while he was a priest but insists that he received therapy and was cured. As he blandly assures Fitzpatrick, "It's all taken care of." Asked about the mincemeat pie, the man acknowledges that he likes it laced with rum to give it "a different flavor." His motive in talking to Fitzpatrick, he says, is therapeutic. "I just hope I'm helping you," the man says. Last week, in a terse statement, Porter admitted that he had been "a very sick man" and had "sexually abused a number of children." He declared, "I have not had sexual contact with any child since I left the priesthood in 1974. I am deeply sorry for all the pain that I have caused."

In October 1990, Fitzpatrick, hearing from other schoolmates that they had also been victimized, took out a small personal ad in the Attleboro Sun Chronicle under the headline REMEMBER FATHER PORTER? Within months a half dozen former pupils at St. Mary's had contacted Fitzpatrick, claiming that they too had been molested by Porter. Some had long harbored vague, painful memories of alleged abuse; others, like Fitzpatrick, had for years blocked out their experiences. Two months ago, after Fitzpatrick went public with his allegations on a Boston television station, dozens more came forward. (The station, WBZ-TV, claims that in an interview Porter admitted sexually abusing as many as 100 youngsters.)

For some, the shock of recognition was hard to take. John Robitaille, 43, a former altar boy at St. Mary's and now the president of his own communications firm in Providence, R.I., was driving home late one night in May when he heard a news report about the scandal. After years of repression, his own memories came back. "In a matter of seconds, I felt a flood of emotion from my head to my toes," he says. "I began shaking all over."

Based on reports from police investigators, county prosecutors in Massachusetts are now studying what possible charges could be filed against Porter and whether the statute of limitations has expired. If he is prosecuted, there will be no shortage of witnesses able to provide wrenching testimony. The accusers remember Porter as a handsome and jovial young priest who quickly became a favorite of the students when he arrived at St. Mary's in 1960 at the age of 25.

It was not long before that initial impression changed radically, at least among the students. Patricia Wilson, 43, who works as a rehabilitation counselor in Wrentham, Mass., was about 10 or 11 when she says she fell prey to Porter. "He would stalk us like animals," she says. "I would be standing in a corridor, and he would come up behind me. He would press against my rear, and I could feel his stiffness. Then he would reach in front of me and grab me through my skirt. All of us were petrified." Wilson says that she and other girls developed an early-warning system against his advances. "When one of us saw him approaching, we'd send the word down the hall: 'Look out, Porter's coming,' " she says. "We'd press our backs against the wall."

According to Wilson, the most severe abuse typically occurred in his rectory office, where Porter would bring students after taking them out of class. There, she says, he would use his fingers on her vagina. "After it was over," she says, "he would become very serious and warn me not to tell anyone or else God would punish me." Boys who were allegedly molested say they received the same admonition. John Robitaille claims that after Porter once forced him to perform oral sex in the basement of the rectory, "He said that we had done a very bad thing, and I should not tell anyone about it. I remember that 'we,' and it instilled a sense of guilt in me." And, of course, guilt was not the only scar. Says Robitaille: "To have been introduced to sex as an act of aggression and power has been very traumatic for me."

Patricia Wilson firmly believes that her experience with Porter is one of the key reasons she is in the midst of her second divorce. "I liked boys, and I like men, but I have never been able to fully trust them," she says. "A major part in the breakup of my marriages was the problem I had with being touched in a certain way. Instead of responding affectionately, I would stiffen up." Patricia Kozak, 43, a surgical technician from Wrentham, though married for 23 years, maintains that Porter's alleged molesting of her on three occasions had a profound effect, in ways both large and small. "All my life since then I have not been happy with myself," she says. "I also had this hang-up I could not fully understand. To this day I cringe whenever I wear a dress. Even on my wedding day, I asked my mother, 'Couldn't I wear slacks instead of a dress?' I did not know why I felt this tension until I realized I was recalling Father Porter lifting my skirt to molest me."

What especially enrages the accusers is that the Catholic diocese of Fall River, Mass., which has jurisdiction over St. Mary's, apparently had reason to suspect problems with Father Porter. At least several former students have alleged that Father Armando Annunziato, a fellow priest at St. Mary's, witnessed assaults by Porter. (Annunziato has been unavailable for comment.) As it happens, Patricia Kozak's father, Henry Viens, had complained to officials in 1963 that Porter had allegedly abused his nephew, without being aware of his own daughter's experience. Following Viens's complaint, Porter was removed from St. Mary's, only to be shifted to Sacred Heart Church in Fall River, where he served for one year, and then St. James Church in New Bedford, Mass. In each case he was dogged by further allegations of molestation, which church officials were again reportedly aware of. In the phone conversations with Fitzpatrick, the man who claims to be Porter says he eventually was treated at a church rehabilitation center in Jemez Springs, N.Mex.

As the scandal recently broke, the church still seemed to be in denial. Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston excoriated reporters for hyping the story. "By all means let's call down God's power on the media," he thundered. One conciliatory note came from Bishop Sean Patrick O'Malley, who is scheduled to take over the Fall River diocese next month. "To those who were victimized, the Catholic community wants to respond to your needs in the best way possible," he said. "People see the priest as a man committed to holiness, to the service of the community, and when this trust is betrayed, we know that great harm is done."

To his neighbors in Oakdale, Jim Porter hardly fits the popular image of a child-molesting monster. He and his wife, Verlyne, who works for the state, live in a modest home and keep pretty much to themselves, raising their two girls and two boys, who range in age from 16 years to 11 months. It appears that Porter has been comfortable filling the role of a house husband and doing work for the local church. His parish priest, Father Chuck Brambilla, says Porter told him about the allegations shortly before they broke in the local papers. "There's a lot of hurt," says Brambilla. "If the accusations are true, it's very difficult. It's not the way he was known here."

Last week seven accusers in Minnesota appeared, claiming that Porter had sexually abused them when he served at St. Philip's Catholic Church in the northern town of Bemidji, a few years before he left the priesthood. One of the accusers, Jim Grimm, 34, a bartender and coach in Bemidji, says that Porter molested him at least three times a week until local church officials removed the priest. Now he and the others have initiated a wide-ranging civil suit against Porter and various church institutions. "The only way to get their attention is to sue them," Grimm says. "It's a shame. They're supposed to be the moral leaders." As for Porter's claim that he has not molested anyone since 1974, at least one man in Minnesota, Mike Huber, 27, a construction worker in Oakdale, says that 14 or 15 years ago Porter grabbed him one time in a garage and rubbed his body up against him. No charges have been filed in the alleged incident because the Minnesota statute of limitations has run out.

Meanwhile, the more than 50 original accusers have retained a lawyer in Boston for a possible civil suit against the Fall River diocese and Porter. As part of any settlement, the accusers want to make sure that church authorities pledge to deal more openly with allegations of child abuse involving priests. Fitzpatrick believes that if such safeguards are implemented, it will have made his painful crusade worthwhile. "My childhood was ruined, and a part of my adulthood was soured, and I don't want it to happen to others," he says. "It's kind of like being in a jungle when you're a kid. It's bad enough as it is without having your guide—a priest—turn on you in that jungle."

BILL HEWITT
WILLIAM SONZSKI in North Attleboro and MARGARET NELSON in Oakdale

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