BOSTON – Former priest James Porter (search), 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, department spokeswoman Diane Wiffin said. A cause of death was not immediately available. Porter's attorney had said he 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 avoid scandal.
"Father Porter came to symbolize the start of an era when people could talk about priest abuse," said attorney Roderick MacLeish (search), who represented 101 Porter victims in lawsuits in the early 1990s. "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 to molesting 28 children, but once told a television reporter he molested as many as 100 children during his time as a priest in the 1960s and early 1970s in the Fall River Diocese (search).
"This guy was a master at being around children," said former city councilman and victim Thomas A. Kennedy (search), 52. "Thank God he's no longer in existence." Kennedy, a former altar boy, resigned his city council seat in 1992 to deal with trauma of being abused decades earlier.
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.
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, he stayed in the town until 1963. He was eventually accused of having molested 68 boys and girls in North Attleboro.
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 — the Rev. Paul Shanley (search) — 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, where he was convicted of molestation in 1993 and sentenced to 18 to 20 years.
During the hearing to have him classified as sexually dangerous — and keep him behind bars indefinitely — victims told 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 erupted again in 2002, when the release of court files in the case of the Rev. John Geoghan (search) opened the floodgates on files about dozens of sexually abusive priests in Boston. The scandal spread across the country.