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Files show RI Church Leaders Knew of Abuse for Decades

05/17/2002 - The Providence Journal - By Jennifer Levitz

PROVIDENCE -- Newly released documents in New England's watershed case of sexual abuse by clergymen show that church officials as high-ranking as the late Cardinal Humberto Medeiros knew decades ago that now-defrocked Fall River priest James Porter had been accused of molestation.

Hundreds of pages of personnel files on Porter, which the Boston Herald obtained through a court order in U.S. District Court in Boston, indicate that bishops failed to act on early warnings that sexual abuse by priests was becoming a problem, the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a priest and canon lawyer who formerly worked at the Vatican Embassy in Washington, D.C. said yesterday.

The files show that Porter himself wrote to Pope Paul VI in the 1970s, alluding to troubles that had plagued him in North Attleboro and followed him to Fall River. He admitted to abusing scores of children while he was a priest.

Father Doyle, who was the secretary-canonist of the Apostolic Delegation to the Vatican, co-authored a 1985 report on the growing problem of sexual abuse of children in the Catholic church, and presented the report to the U.S. Conference of Bishops for their annual meeting that year. The bishops did not act on it.

"I'm sure it goes back to the 1970s. I'm not surprised at all," Father Doyle said of the files on Porter, which include a letter from Porter to Pope Paul VI, and memos written by Medeiros. "I have documented evidence that bishops were talking about [sexual abuse] in the early 1970s, so when they say now that they didn't understand it then . . . that's hogwash."

The U.S. District Court records were part of a lawsuit filed by the Continental Insurance Co. against Porter and the Diocese of Fall River over payments in abuse claims. The documents were sealed in 1993 but were unsealed last month upon a request from the Herald.

James Porter admitted to molesting at least 50 children while a priest in the Fall River Diocese in the 1950s and 1960s. He pleaded guilty to molesting 28 children in 1993, and is serving a prison sentence of 18 to 20 years.

The Porter documents include a 17-page letter the priest wrote to Pope Paul VI, in which he asked to be removed from the priesthood. In the letter, addressed to "Most Holy Father," Porter wrote that then-Fall River Bishop James Connolly knew that Porter had been caught molesting a boy, and that Bishop Connolly had sent him home to be with his family until the scandal died down.

"A short time later, Bishop Connolly gave me another chance and assigned me to Sacred Heart Parish in Fall River," Porter wrote. "I can't recollect much about my state there except after a short time I again fell into the same situation that plagued me in North Attleboro."

Fred Paine, of Warwick, says Porter raped him on "Holy Saturday, 1961," at St. Mary's Parish in North Attleboro. Paine, 53, who is now active in Survivor Connections, a Cranston-based group that was founded by victims of Porter, said, "I was able to stare him down in court; that man was ashamed of what he did."

The files also include a 1993 affidavit by James D. Bono, the former associate pastor of Immaculate Conception Church, in Fall River. Bono said that in 1966, police officers from Revere, Mass., told him that Father Porter had molested the son of an officer. In the affidavit, Bono said he called Cardinal Medeiros and told him that Father Porter had admitted to him that he had molested a boy. The cardinal, he said, responded,"Yes, we know."

In a memo dated March 21, 1964, the Herald reported, Bishop Connolly wrote about a meeting he had with Medeiros, during which Medeiros said that molestation allegations against Porter involved 30 or 40 boys, and that parents were concerned. The newspaper reported that Porter's personnel file was sent to the Vatican in the 1970s.

In a statement yesterday, the Diocese of Fall River said it had "learned from the lessons of tragedy from the Porter case and acted upon them." Policies now include reporting credible claims of abuse to civil authorities.

Richard A. Cappalli, a lawyer representing 38 Rhode Island plaintiffs in lawsuits against the Diocese of Providence, said "the reality is that there are documented complaints even in the Providence Diocese going back to the 1960s."

The diocese lost a court bid in 1990 to keep secret the sworn depositions of then-Bishop Louis E. Gelineau, who was sued over allegations that he was negligent in not removing the Rev. William C. O'Connell, pastor at St. Mary Church in Bristol in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In the deposition, Gelineau said that between 1978 and 1984, two assistant pastors at St. Mary's complained of Father O'Connell's apparent pedophilia. Bishop Gelineau said he believed the concerns were "without foundation" and that he never investigated them. The diocese settled the suit with a payment and a confidentiality clause later broken when fresh allegations surfaced against O'Connell in New Jersey.

Bishop Kenneth A. Angell, the former auxiliary bishop in the Diocese of Providence, testified in a deposition in 1990 that did not give credence to a written complaint, in 1978, from a priest who said he had received at least 30 complaints about O'Connell. O'Connell pleaded guilty in 1986 to sexually abusing three boys.

The court files from the lawsuits against the Diocese of Providence also include affidavits from at least two people who say that, as far back as the 1970s and early 1980s, they had warned Bishop Gelineau about the Rev. James M. Silva. In 1995, Father Silva pleaded guilty to sexually abusing a young man at St. Theresa parish in 1991. He served in at least 12 parishes in the diocese.

In an affidavit in March 1993, Rita Condon, then a parishioner at St. Matthew Parish, in Cranston, said she called Bishop Gelineau in the mid-1970s after her son told her that Father Silva molested him during an overnight trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, N.Y. Gelineau arranged for her to meet with a Diocesan staff member, said Condon, who told her 'it would be taken care of." Father Silva was later transferred from St. Matthew to St. Joseph Parish in Burrillville.

The Rev. Edward E. Erpelding, a Navy chaplain, said in a 1993 affidavit that he called Bishop Gelineau in 1980 after a mother told him her son had been abused by Father Silva at St. Lucy Parish in Middletown. Father Erpelding said Bishop Gelineau responded: "Oh, no. Not again. I'll take care of it."

The Diocese of Providence has resisted turning over complete personnel records for the 11 priests named in the lawsuits, including the 5 who have been convicted on criminal charges. Courts in Massachusetts have ordered the Archdiocese of Boston to turn over such records in recent cases.

Certain documents are protected under Canon Law, which governs the clergy and "how they carry out their functions," said James T. Murphy, a lawyer for the diocese. Canon Law covers the "investigation of various types of wrongdoing by clergy including sexual misconduct regarding minors," said Murphy.

Since 1992, however, the Providence Diocese has had a written policy of reporting allegations of sexual abuse to the attorney general's office.

In January 1998, then-Superior Court Judge Richard J. Israel rejected a request by plaintiffs' lawyers to force the Diocese of Providence to open its personnel files. The judge wrote that the court "lacks jurisdiction to adjudicate claims that hierarchical defendants negligently hired, retained, disciplined or counseled their subordinate priests. Inquiry into such matters would plainly take this court into religious questions beyond its jurisdiction."

So far, at least two lawyers across the country have named the Vatican as a defendant.

"I would predict more," said David Clohessy, national director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "Eventually, in depositions . . . evidence almost always emerges that church leaders knew, and did nothing."

Yet, said Matthew P. Harrington, a professor of legal history at Roger Williams University's Ralph J. Papitto School of Law, "does information people are given rise to actual knowledge that there is something amiss on a wider scale?"

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests