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 April 26, 2005
Convicted pedophile priest James Porter dies at 70
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BOSTON -- Former priest James Porter, whose widespread molestation of dozens of children foreshadowed the clergy sex abuse scandal that swept the American Roman Catholic church, died on Friday night.

Porter, 70, died at 6:12 p.m. at New England Medical Center in Boston. He had been treated there since being transferred from Lemuel Shattuck Hospital in Boston, a Department of Correction medical facility, on Jan. 26, department spokeswoman Diane Wiffin said. A cause of death was not immediately available, but Porter's attorney had said the former priest had incurable cancer. The hospital declined to comment.

Porter was the first high-profile case involving allegations that a priest had molested children in his parish _ and that the church had simply moved him from parish to parish to try to avoid scandal.

"Father Porter came to symbolize the start of an era when people could talk about priest abuse," said attorney Roderick MacLeish, who represented 101 Porter victims in early 1990s lawsuits. "The irony is James Porter caused a lot of laws to be changed, caused a lot of people to come forward."

Porter pleaded guilty in 1993 of molesting 28 children, but once told a television reporter that he molested as many as 100 children during his time as a priest in the 1960s and early 1970s in the Fall River Diocese.

"This guy was a master at being around children," said victim Thomas A. Kennedy, 52, of New Bedford. "He was so popular that at opening day at Little League baseball he was a dignitary hitting the first pitch. He was prolific. Thank God he's no longer in existence."

Kennedy, a former altar boy at St. James Church in New Bedford, resigned his city council seat in 1992 to deal with trauma of being abused decades earlier.

"This man could not and would not be stopped," MacLeish said. "He ruined so many lives. He was a human wrecking ball."

Porter had finished his prison sentence last year. But he was being held pending a civil commitment hearing to determine if he should be committed as a sexually dangerous person. A hearing last month was postponed because Porter was too ill to appear.

Porter grew up in working-class East Boston and neighboring Revere, and studied for the priesthood at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore. After he finished in 1960, he was assigned that spring to St. Mary's parish in North Attleboro, near the Rhode Island border.

The seminary recommended him as "a manly, genuine young man" of "excellent character," according to The Boston Globe. But even though he was molesting children within weeks, sometimes brazenly, and rumors about him quickly spread through the town, a culture of shame and denial allowed him to stay until 1963. He was eventually accused of having molested 68 boys and girls in North Attleboro.

At least four parents went to church officials with their suspicions, and in 1963 church authorities transferred Porter to a Fall River parish, where complaints continued to emerge about his behavior.

In 1965, he was transferred again, this time to New Bedford, where he allegedly molested even more children. After he was ordered back to his parents' home in Revere, another priest who would later be himself accused of abuse, the Rev. Paul Shanley, sent Porter to New Mexico for treatment. As Porter moved between states, allegations of abuse followed him: in Texas, Minnesota, and New Mexico.

Porter left the priesthood in 1974, married and became the father of four children. He was convicted of molesting his children's teenage baby sitter in 1987, and was released from a Minnesota jail after serving four months. He returned to face trial in Massachusetts, and in 1993 pleaded guilty to molesting 28 children and was sentenced to 18 to 20 years in prison.

He was scheduled to be released in January 2004, but the state moved to have him classified as sexually dangerous to keep him behind bars indefinitely. During the hearing, his victims took to the stand to tell wrenching stories of being raped or molested, including two sisters who baby-sat his children in Minnesota, and his former wife described how she walked in on him pressing himself against a neighborhood boy.

Among documents released in the spring of 2004 was a letter Porter wrote in 1967 in which he told then-Fall River Bishop James Connolly that he would always be tempted to prey on children.

"I realize what a grind is ahead of me and that the temptation will always be there, but I am resolute that I not only have the ability with God's grace, but I do have the will and desire to control it and solve it now," Porter wrote in a letter from a New Mexico treatment center for pedophile priests.

When the letter was released, Porter's attorney, Michael Farrington, said it was so old it was "meaningless" and that Porter hadn't committed an offense in years. Farrington could not immediately be reached for comment Friday night.

In May of 2004, Porter married Anne Milner, a former nun who he met while in seminary. The two met again three years ago after Milner, who lives in Providence, R.I., wrote him a letter in prison.

Porter was hospitalized in September after undergoing surgery.

The sexual abuse scandal died down in the 1990s, but erupted again in 2002, when the release of court files in the case of the Rev. John Geoghan opened the floodgates on files about dozens of sexually abusive priests in the Boston Archdiocese. That touched off nationwide attention to abuse in Roman Catholic dioceses through the country.

Calls to a spokesman for the Diocese of Fall River were not immediately returned Friday night. The Boston Archdiocese declined comment.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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