Judge rules against Portland diocese, allows childhood abuse lawsuits to move forward
A Maine judge gave the diocese 21 days to appeal his decision to uphold a law that allows Mainers with previously expired claims of child sexual abuse to sue their alleged abusers.
BY EMILY ALLENSTAFF WRITER
A judge has found that a Maine law removing the statute of limitations for civil claims of childhood sexual abuse claims is constitutional.
The 2021 law has prompted more than a dozen people to sue the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, with claims stretching as far back as the 1950s. The diocese argued the law is unconstitutional because it creates new liability and exposes the church to “tens of millions of dollars” in potential claims.
Cumberland County Superior Justice Thomas McKeon’s ruling Tuesday means the cases could proceed to trial, but the diocese has 21 days to file an appeal with the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. In the meantime, the pre-trial discovery process is still paused.
An attorney and a spokesperson for the diocese did not respond to emails Tuesday afternoon asking about their plans to appeal, but the church has previously said it plans to take the issue to the state’s highest court.
“The court agrees that these questions are important, given the number of related cases already docketed,” McKeon wrote, with “a large number of new cases anticipated.”
The diocese is facing 13 lawsuits, but hundreds of other people with claims of abuse involving the church and other organizations or individuals have connected with attorneys. Many have already resulted in private settlements, but some lawyers have said they’re waiting for the courts to rule on the constitutionality question before filing formal complaints.
Attorneys and advocates say the lawsuits are about giving victims a path to justice.
“Let this be a clear message that abusers and those who enabled them will be held accountable,” said Mike McDonnell, communications manager for the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, in an email Tuesday.
Rep. Lori Gramlich, D-Old Orchard Beach, who sponsored the law, called the ruling “great news for survivors of abuse and for everyone who values justice.”
“Many of the survivors coming forward now are telling their stories for the first time after years of dealing with the aftermath of abuse,” Gramlich wrote in a statement Tuesday. “Today’s decision means they can continue their long-overdue pursuit of justice.”
Michael Bigos, who represents the 13 people suing the diocese, said in a written statement Tuesday that the diocese should allow the discovery process to resume, “to share what it knew and when it knew it; disclosing documents and other records that tell the story of how they chose to keep abuse a secret, protecting perpetrators and letting them continue to hurt other people.”
Lawmakers agreed in 2021 to remove all remaining time barriers on claims of sexual abuse against children. By the following summer, the first known complaints were filed against the diocese in Cumberland, York and Penobscot counties.
But the diocese’s arguments that an expired statute of limitations should be viewed the same as a property right, failed to persuade the judge.
“None of these cases explain why a vested property right emerges from an expired statute of limitations,” McKeon wrote. “Nor do any of them locate vested rights protections in the Maine state Constitution’s due process clause.”
The diocese’s attorney Gerald Petruccelli relied heavily on a recent decision from the state supreme court that a voter-approved law blocking the New England Clean Energy project — a transmission corridor carrying electricity from Quebec to Massachusetts — would be constitutional if enough work on the transmission line had been completed before the statewide referendum was held. A lower court is still determining whether enough of the project was completed to establish vested rights.
But that decision supports a broad interpretation of Maine’s vested rights doctrine, Petruccelli said, in which “property” is embraced as “everything to which a man may attach value and have a right.”
“However, statutes of limitation are different than property rights,” McKeon wrote, noting that in the NECEC case, the court didn’t extend the state’s vested rights doctrine to statutes of limitations. “They are creatures of statute within the prerogative of the legislature.”
The lawsuits are targeted toward the diocese — rather than the individual priests — because the plaintiffs argue these priests were known abusers that the church moved throughout the diocese, rather than removing them from ministry and notifying parishioners.
Robert Dupuis has alleged he was 12 years old when he was abused by the Rev. John Curran in 1961. The parish later moved Curran to a church in Augusta, where several others allege he abused them, according to other civil complaints filed against the diocese.
Ann Allen of Scarborough said she was abused by the Rev. Lawrence Sabatino when she was 6 years old while attending a sodality meeting at St. Peter Parish in Portland. Sabatino was moved to Allen’s parish after church leaders were alerted that he was accused of abusing another young girl in Lewiston in 1958.
A man filed another complaint against the diocese late last year, alleging abuse by Sister Mary Geraldine Walsh in the 1960s when he was a second grader at St. John Parochial School in Bangor.
Bigos and other attorneys suing the diocese say they’re hoping the mounting legal pressure will force the church to take responsibility for enabling the abuse of minors and release information on credibly accused priests.
In a previous interview, Bigos said he hopes the process will compel the diocese to release reports that some survivors and their families remember making to the church, but that didn’t appear in an investigative report by the Attorney General’s Office that was made public in 2005 following a lawsuit by the Portland Press Herald.
The document offered a brief history of abuse at the hands of more than 60 employees, including priests, laymen and church employees – most of whom the report did not name. No criminal charges were filed, either because there was deemed to be insufficient evidence to prosecute or because the statute of limitations had run out.
The report also stated that the diocese wasn’t criminally liable for any of the alleged abuse because in Maine the church wasn’t legally required to report allegations until 1997.