Image: John Robitaille
Stew Milne  /  AP
John Robitaille confronted the Roman Catholic church in the 1990s for sheltering a priest who abused him and other victims.
updated 3/22/2010 5:25:10 PM ET 2010-03-22T21:25:10

John Robitaille nearly swerved his car off Interstate 95 when he heard a Boston radio station report that his old classmates had accused a Roman Catholic priest of sexually abusing them as children.

The former paratrooper, then 43, pulled onto the highway shoulder and sat trembling, tearing up as he was assailed by memories kept buried for decades: the cigarette breath of his abuser, the Rev. James R. Porter; the rape and Porter's warnings never to tell anyone what happened. He hadn't.

"It was an emotional rush," Robitaille said. "It was — it's difficult to describe it because I've never felt it before and I've never felt it since then."

That moment in May 1992 eventually made Robitaille a core leader in the campaign to confront Porter for his prolific abuse. The church would eventually settle 131 victim claims, the largest U.S. sex abuse scandal until new allegations surfaced a decade later in Boston.

The case taught Robitaille key organizing skills, and he says it gave him a sense of determination he would bring into the governor's office. Until recently a little-known staffer for Republican Gov. Don Carcieri, Robitaille is running as a fiscal and social conservative in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans almost 4-1.

Almost two decades after going public against his abuser, Robitaille says he has moved on. He occasionally attends Mass and says he has forgiven Porter and the church leaders who sheltered him.

Still, the campaign against Porter remains the largest of Robitaille's life. He and fellow survivors pressed a district attorney to charge the former priest, demanded reform from the church and won compensation from a hierarchy that protected Porter.

"There was a small group of people who went up against a very powerful institution, and went up against the district attorney's office who wanted nothing to do with this," Robitaille said in January while announcing his candidacy. "And through persistence, through optimism, through rugged determination, through never saying no and never giving up, we prevailed."

Priest ran the school
Robitaille grew up in North Attleborough, Mass., a short walk from St. Mary's Church.

He attended the parish school, was an altar boy and played on a parish basketball team coached by Porter, a young priest who cracked jokes in his Sunday homilies and joined pickup baseball games.

Responsible for the school, Porter was accused of abusing children in his private office, in a church sacristy, the rectory, at children's homes, inside the confessional, even on the church altar.

Like others, Robitaille never spoke up.

"As a small child, how do you internalize that? How do you deal with that? And the answer, for most kids, is they can't," he said.

The abuse stopped when Robitaille left St. Mary's school and went to the town high school. He was commissioned an Army officer and started a video production firm. Robitaille pushed the abuse far out his mind, but he suffered from depression and panic attacks as an adult, problems that he attributes to being abused.

After hearing the radio report, Robitaille said he stayed up nearly all night telling his wife about Porter — the first time he had confided the abuse to anyone. The next day, he contacted Frank Fitzpatrick, a Porter victim and private detective.

Fitzpatrick had tracked down Porter, who left the priesthood in 1974, got married and was living in Minnesota. In 1990, Fitzpatrick phoned him, taped the call and got Porter to confess to abusing children. Taping that conversation was legal under Rhode Island law.

Unable to persuade a Massachusetts prosecutor to bring charges against Porter, Fitzpatrick then teamed up with attorney Roderick MacLeish Jr. and went public. Using his research, WBZ-TV aired a report on Porter's abuse that was also broadcast on radio. It was that report Robitaille heard.

Robitaille agreed to go public after learning through Fitzpatrick that Porter was a free man and allegedly abusing more children.

"I got outraged," Robitaille said. "How could this still be going on after all these years, that this man was still running around abusing children?"

Robitaille helped steer meetings that ultimately involved more than 100 of Porter's victims, MacLeish said. Besides acting as a de facto spokesman, he sat on a committee advising MacLeish on negotiations with the church and met with Bishop Sean O'Malley, then head of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass.

"I never believed that anyone could speak for all the survivors," MacLeish said. "But he was very good at telling me what the sentiment in the room was."

Tried and found guilty
To pressure prosecutors, Robitaille and others filed criminal complaints, gave impromptu news conferences, pushed back against Cardinal Bernard Law and appeared on national TV shows to get their message out.

Porter was indicted in 1992 and later pleaded guilty to molesting 28 children in southeastern Massachusetts. He was sentenced to 18-20 years in prison, where he died in 2005.

Robitaille spoke directly to Porter during the sentencing hearing and reminded the court his crimes were against children, not the adults who spoke.

"I carry that dead child within me," Robitaille said at the time.

Robitaille will not disclose how much money he received in a confidential settlement with the church. He's more proud of reforms wrung from the Diocese of Fall River, including policies to immediately investigate sex abuse claims and report them to police. The diocese created a review panel of clergy and lay people to review sex abuse claims that was viewed as a national model at the time.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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