Former priest James Porter, whose widespread molestation of dozens of children foreshadowed the clergy sex abuse scandal that swept the Roman Catholic church, died Friday.
Porter, 70, died at New England Medical Center in Boston, where he had been treated since being transferred from a Department of Correction medical facility last month, said Diane Wiffin, a spokeswoman for the department. A cause of death was not immediately available, but his attorney had said Porter had incurable cancer.
Porter’s case was the first high-profile one 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.
Porter pleaded guilty in 1993 to molesting 28 children, but he 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.
Porter had finished his prison sentence last year. But he was being held pending a civil commitment hearing to determine whether he should be committed as a sexually dangerous person.
Accused of molesting dozens of children
Allegations of abuse began following Porter immediately after he became a priest in 1960 in the industrial town of North Attleboro.
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 in the town 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 about his behavior continued.
In 1965, he was transferred again, this time to New Bedford, where he allegedly molested more children. After he was ordered back to his parents’ home, another priest who would later himself be accused of abuse — 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 he 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. His former wife described how she walked in on him pressing himself against a neighborhood boy.
The sexual abuse scandal died down in the 1990s, but it 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 Boston. The scandal quickly spread across the country.