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FROM THE ARCHIVES: Abuser's death doesn't heal assault victims

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FROM THE ARCHIVES: Abuser's death doesn't heal assault victims
Grand Forks North Dakota 375 2nd Ave. N. 58203

BEMIDJI, Minn. -- The news that James Porter had died wasn't a surprise and didn't mean much to Dan Dow and Jim Grimm, even though the man marked their lives.

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When they were sixth-grade altar boys in St. Philip's Catholic parish here in 1969 and 1970, Porter was a priest who sexually assaulted them and 20 other youths dozens of times.

Porter, 70, died of cancer Friday in Massachusetts, still behind bars. He had admitted to sexually abusing 100 or more children in several parishes in several states, including Minnesota, before leaving the priesthood in 1973.

Grimm, 46, prayed Sunday in St. Philip's.

"I prayed for all the victims. I prayed it wouldn't happen again any more. I prayed all the victims could handle it."

Dow, 47, still is a member of the parish but doesn't attend very often, mostly because of the way the church handled the abuse scandal. He still has strong emotions about what Porter did to him, what made him nearly commit suicide several times and start a drinking habit when he was in eighth grade.

"I hope right now he is standing right in front of the good Lord, explaining what he did. But I don't think he went in that direction," Dow said. "The only bad thing about his dying is he didn't suffer enough. But at least he's gone and never will have the opportunity to abuse any kids in the future."

Wider scandal

Porter was not the first Catholic priest convicted of sexual abuse of children in America, but his case was seen as a harbinger of what became wide scandal since involving dozens of priests and hundreds if not thousands of victims over the past several decades in the American church.

After leaving the priesthood in 1974, Porter married Verlyne Gray in 1976, with whom he had four children. They lived quietly in Oakdale, Minn., until a Massachusetts man contacted church officials alleging that Porterhad sexually assaulted him in the 1960s.

The ensuing investigation led to Porter being convicted in Minnesota in 1992 of sexually assaulting a teenaged girl who baby sat his children. His first wife, who divorced him in 1995, later said she believes he molested their children, too. Porter served four months in a Minnesota jail, then was released to face charges in Massachusetts. In 1993, he was convicted of sexually assaulting 28 children in Massachusetts while a priest there in the 1960s, and was sentenced to 18 to 20 years in prison. He completed his prison sentence in January 2004, but Massachusetts officials immediately began civil commitment proceedings to keep him incarcerated for life.

In May 2004, Porter married Anne Milner, a former nun whom he met while in seminary in the late 1950s. She said last week that Porter's funeral would be private, because "he's had enough circus and cutting and cruelty," according to The Associated Press. She also said Porter was a changed man by the time he died. "I have no question he is forgiven," she told a reporter from her Rhode Island home. "In God's eyes, James Porter is a far better person than I am."

The civil commitment proceedings against Porter were delayed because of his battle with cancer.

Porter was a priest from 1960 until being forced out of the priesthood in 1974 by church officials after his suspected abuse of children. Ironically, Paul Shanley, the ex-priest sentenced Tuesday in Massachusetts to sexual assault, had sent Porter for treatment to a New Mexico center in the 1960s after he had been suspected of sexually assaulting children in Massachusetts. Porter came to Minnesota in the summer of 1969, sent for treatment for alcoholism and pedophilia at a Catholic center in Nevis, southeast of Bemidji. After two months of treatment, he asked for and was given an assignment as an associate pastor at St. Philip's in Bemidji. He served there from September 1969 until September 1970, when parents of his victims demanded church officials do something. They sent Porter on to more treatment and more parish work where he abused more children in other states before he was drummed out of the priesthood.

Memories returnIt went on far too long, say Dow and Grimm, who both gave little conscious thought to Porter after their parents made sure, in 1970, that the priest never would hurt them again.

But on the same May day in 1992, the long-suppressed memories of abuse came back to both men.

"I was reading the local paper, the Pioneer," Grimm said. The story was of allegations of sexual abuse by a Massachussets priest named James Porter. "I pretty much passed out in a chair," Grimm said. "It just overwhelmed me."

Only a few minutes later, his life-long friend Dan Dow called: "Have you seen the article in Newsweek? "The two men started comparing notes, something they hadn't done in 22 years.

Both had been altar boys serving Mass nearly daily at St. Philips, where for that long year, Porter sexually assaulted them many times, sometimes right before or after Mass.

It finally came out in the summer of 1970 after a weekend trip to a Twins game, during which Porter assaulted half a dozen boys the same night.

Dow was the first to tell his parents. "I can still remember tapping my mother on the arm. `I gotta talk to you about something.'

"His parents told Grimm's parents and the two fathers went to a senior priest at St. Philip's and said if something wasn't done, they were going to contact the sheriff.

Porter was sent away. "They wanted to be good Catholics and keep it within the church," Dow said.

He and Grimm never said a word to each other or anyone else again about the abuse until 1992, when the news broke.

"It was kind of an emotional time," Dow said. "Seeing the article, going back, it kind of opened up a closet in your head you had just tucked away and went on with life. I had to go back into counseling. I realized some of my nightmares were related to that."

For 20 years, he had nightmares of someone chasing him, in a big house, or in a sports stadium. The shadowy figure chasing him wasn't clear, "but I knew I didn't want to get caught by him," Dow said. "I would wake up in a cold sweat."

Grimm, too, went in for counseling in 1992.

Outraged that Porter had abused so many other children in so many other places, Grimm and Dow soon decided to go public. They contacted every old school mate they could find. It was too late for criminal charges, but they and 19 other former St. Philip's students sued Catholic church officials, including the Crookston diocese. By the late 1990s, they had won a financial settlement that totaled over a million dollars, but once divided up, wasn't so much, they said.

"The lawyers get most of it," Dow said, adding with a laugh: "It's not like I got enough to retire."

Still at St. Philip'sDow's worked as credit manager at Beltrami Electric since 1989. Grimm works for Catholic Aid Association, a fraternal insurance company.

Both are married with children who attend or attended St. Philip's school.Dow, married for 25 years, has a daughter who is 19 and who grew up attending St. Philip's. He's never talked with her about Porter's abuse.

"My daughter was active at St. Philip's and I made sure I was as active in the programs, to be protective," Dow said.

Grimm didn't marry until after the Porter story broke in 1992. He says if not for his wife, Sue, and her support, he would have ended his life. They have a young son and daughter, both students in St. Philip's.

For the first time since sixth grade, Grimm saw Porter face to face last year in a Massachusetts court while testifying that Porter should never be released, even though his sentence was up.

"He wouldn't look at me. I tried to stare at him the whole time I spoke, and he would not look at me in the face."

No closure

Porter's death brings no closure, Grimm said.

"It's always with you. It's never going way. It's with you every day. There are still nights when you don't sleep."

He's never seen Porter since sixth grade. "I really would have liked to confront him face to face, to see if he remembered me. But justice can never be served in this, because you can't go back and undo what was done."

Last fall, Grimm went back to confession for the first time in 30 years, mostly because his young daughter was preparing for her first confession.

"It was hard for me to go back to church. I was raped in that building," Grimm said. Porter heard youths' confessions back then, too.

Taught to forgive both in church and in the counseling he needed to deal after the abuse, Grimm said, "That is a constant struggle. It's something I will continue to work on."

Dow feels fewer ties to his childhood faith.

"I believe in a God," Dow said. "I actually like the Native American view of Mother Earth. There has to be a being out there of some intelligence because this all didn't just happen. But am I a devout Catholic like I used to be? No."

Both men wonder about the church's response to the scandal Porter illustrated.

"I still consider myself a Catholic, but I have a hard time going to hear these guys sermonize, I guess," Dow said. "The thing that bothered me about this whole lawsuit was that the church was allowed to say, `We are not going to contest this but we are not going to admit this.'

"Grimm sees good priests in the church, too, but says there are too many bad ones still allowed."

There are certainly good priests out there. Why aren't they up in arms about the abuse? It's their reputations that are being hurt.

"They've painted the house, but they have not cleaned it out," Grimm said. "Our reason for coming forward was to stop this and see it doesn't happen again."

Lee can be reached at (800) 477-6572, ext. 237, or at (701) 780-1237; e-mail slee@gfherald.com.

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Steve Lee
(701) 780-1237
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