Woman sues Crookston diocese over alleged abuse by former Bemidji priest

CROOKSTON, Minn. — A Minnesota woman filed suit Thursday in state district court in Crookston alleging negligence by the Catholic Diocese of Crookston by allowing the late James Porter to serve as a priest in Bemidji 44 years ago when she says he sexually assaulted her many times in her home and in the church.

The lawsuit, citing damages to “Doe 4”of more than the statutory minimum of $50,000, also claims a Massachusetts diocese and a former New Mexico Catholic treatment center for priests, were negligent in allowing Porter to move to Minnesota.

Porter was removed from the priesthood in 1974 and died in 2005 of cancer after serving a prison term for sexually abusing 28 young people. He admitted to sexually attacking more than 100 young girls and boys from his ordination 1960 to 1973, in five states, including 21 in Bemidji.

Several of his Bemidji victims earlier sued the Crookston diocese, also represented by Doe 4’s attorney, Jeffrey Anderson of St. Paul, who has sued Catholic leaders and dioceses and parishes for hundreds of millions of dollars in sex abuse claims the past 20 years.

Anderson plans to hold news conferences Monday in Crookston and Bemidji.

Requests for comment from Bishop James Hoeppner in Crookston, Monsignor David Baumgartner, vicar general of the diocese, and Charles Stock, the Crookston attorney representing the diocese, were not immediately returned this morning.

Many victims

The lawsuit filed Thursday in Crookston says Doe 4 was “raised in a devout Roman Catholic family” and “attended Mass and received the sacraments” in St. Philip’s parish.

She was in third and fourth grade in the parish elementary school where she “came to know, trust, revere, obey and admire James Porter as her parish priest, spiritual instructor and mentor.”

“From 1969 through 1970, James Porter regularly and repeatedly sexually molested” her, when she was 9 and 10 years old, according to Anderson’s complaint. “The sexual abuse occurred on the parish school’s property and in the plaintiff’s home while James Porter was visiting (her) family as their parish priest.”

Porter began as a priest in Massachusetts in 1960 but after getting in trouble for abusing children, was sent to a noted Catholic treatment center for priests in New Mexico, the Servants of the Paraclete.

At the time, the center had a half-way house in Nevis, Minn., south of Bemidji, where Porter was sent in 1969. While there, he received permission from Bishop Laurence Glenn of the Crookston diocese to serve as an “extern” priest in Bemidji.

He was considered a popular young priest there, involved especially in coaching youth basketball. But he abused dozens of young people, often altar boys before and after Mass. He also regularly visited the family homes of children for dinner, then “honored” the family by putting the children to bed with prayers, when he would sexually attack them in their own beds, said Margaret Dow, a Bemidji attorney whose brother was one of Porter’s victims.

In the summer of 1970, during a trip to a Twins game in Minneapolis, Porter sexually attacked a half-dozen boys in the motel room and they began comparing notes. Dan Dow told his parents, who led the move demanding Bishop Kenneth Povish in Crookston remove Porter.

Dow and others said the church leaders in Massachusetts as well as in Crookston knew of Porter’s sexual attacks on dozens of young people before he was allowed to work in Bemidji.

“I knew there were other victims, including girls, who hadn’t come forward yet,” said Margaret Dow on Thursday.

Some didn’t want their parents to know of the abuse, she said.

Early questions

Church documents from Crookston diocesan leaders in 1969 and 1970 indicate they had concerns about Porter’s past but they believed his treatment in New Mexico and Nevis made him suitable for parish work again.

Church officials have said that nobody understood 40 years ago how difficult it is to treat sex criminals such as Porter.

But in the lawsuit filed Thursday, Anderson includes statements from a leader of the New Mexico treatment center dating to the 1950s telling church officials that he thought priests who sexually abuse children needed to be removed from parish work and in some cases, from the priesthood.

The Minnesota Legislature earlier this year expanded the time during which people can file lawsuits alleging long-ago sexual abuse.

Dow and others said in an interview that once Porter was removed from the parish and diocese 43 years ago, church officials never said a word about the abuse nor offered any help to the children he had sexually abused in the parish. Dow said he had attempted suicide several times because of the abuse.

In the 1990s, Dow and seven others, also represented by Jeffrey Anderson, sued the Crookston diocese in the 1990s, winning damages of more than $1 million, Dow said.

In 1973, Porter wrote to Pope Paul VI, asking to be “laicized,” which happened in 1974. He married a woman and they had four children, living in a St. Paul suburb.

But by 1992, stories of his abuse of dozens of children in Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico and elsewhere became a scandal. He pleaded guilty in 1993 to sexually attacking 28 children in a Massachusetts court and was sentenced to 18 to 20 years. He had completed his prison sentence but was being held pending a civil commitment hearing when he died of cancer in Feb. 11, 2005, in a New England hospital.

His first wife divorced him in the mid-1990s. He remarried in 2004 to a former nun he first had met in the late 1950s.

The Bemiidji Pioneer