Church Abuse Victim Seeks Right to Sue

Bangor Daily News [Bangor ME]
November 13, 2004

BANGOR - A Sydney man is asking the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to reverse a decision it made seven years ago and allow his lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland and its former bishop to go forward. Michael Fortin, 32, sued the Rev. Raymond Melville, the diocese and then-Bishop Joseph J. Gerry in 2000, claiming that Melville, a priest assigned to St. Mary's Church in Augusta, sexually abused him for seven years, beginning in 1985 when Fortin was 13.

Earlier this year, Superior Court Justice Kirk Studstrup ordered Melville to pay Fortin $500,000, but dismissed the case against the bishop and the diocese.

Fortin appealed to the state supreme court. Oral arguments are scheduled to be heard Tuesday in the Cumberland County Courthouse in Portland.

Studstrup based his decision to dismiss on the 1997 high court's decision in Swanson v. the Roman Catholic Bishop of Portland. In that case, a Gray couple who had sought counseling from their parish priest sued him, the bishop and the diocese after he had an affair with the woman. Albert and Ruth Swanson claimed that the bishop and the diocese had not properly supervised the Rev. Maurice Morin.

In a precedent-setting decision, the justices ruled 4-2 that under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the bishop is immune from civil liability for alleged negligent supervision of a priest. The justices determined that the law cannot treat the clergy as though they were common-law employees.

"The imposition of secular duties and liability on the church as a 'principal' will infringe upon its right to determine the standards governing the relationship between the church, its bishop and the parish priest," then Chief Justice Daniel E. Wathen wrote for the majority.

The dissenting justices said it was premature for the high court to address the issue but took note of the Swansons' assertion that the bishop knew of Morin's difficulty in maintaining his vow of chastity but took no steps to deal with the problem.

Fortin is asking the court to reverse that decision and rule that the bishop and the diocese can be sued for negligent supervision of priests.

The major difference between the two cases is the fact that Ruth Swanson was an adult and Fortin was a minor when the sexual contact occurred.

The Swanson case also was decided almost five years before three priests in Maine were removed from their parishes for sexually abusing minors.

The makeup of the court also has changed since 1997. Three justices who ruled in the Swanson case - Robert W. Clifford, Paul L. Rudman and Howard H. Dana - still are sitting on the state Supreme Court. Dana dissented in the case, while the other two justices joined the majority.

Chief Justice Leigh Saufley, who was the Superior Court justice the high court reversed in the Swanson decision, and Justices Jon D. Levy, Susan W. Calkins and Donald G. Alexander have been appointed to the court since 1997.

Attorneys for Fortin and the diocese declined Friday to comment on the coming arguments before the state's high court.


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