Cheverus Abuse Suit Pending
A former student's 1998 lawsuit, alleging molestation by a priest in the 1980s, has not moved forward since last March

By David Hench
Portland Press Herald
March 21, 2000

[See other articles about Charles Malia.]

A lawsuit filed almost two years ago alleging that a former Cheverus High School priest molested a student in the mid-1980s has yet to be scheduled for trial.

Lawyers for Michael S. Doherty, a Florida man who attended Cheverus, said their client has been waiting since March 1999 to find out if his civil case in Cumberland County Superior Court can move forward against the Rev. James Talbot; Cheverus High; Maine's Roman Catholic Diocese; and the Society of Jesus of New England, which oversees the school.

At issue are accusations by Doherty that Talbot sexually assaulted him numerous times between 1984 and 1985, often on school property and during school hours, when Doherty was a Cheverus student.

The case, which was filed in 1998, has lingered since last March, when lawyers for the institutions named in the suit asked Justice Thomas E. Delahanty to dismiss the action against them.

"It's been under advisement for about a year," said Daniel Lilley, Doherty's lawyer. "I don't know the circumstances. I'd like to be optimistic that it's just simply a glitch somewhere."

Delahanty said that the rules of ethics governing judges' conduct preclude him from discussing the case. "I can't comment on anything I have under advisement," he said. "I get to them as quick as I can."

The Talbot case bears some similarity to another case at Cheverus High that was brought into the open in recent weeks. In that case, former Cheverus teacher and coach Charles Malia has been accused of sexually abusing students in the 1960s and 1970s. Both cases involve former students who have stepped forward as adults to raise charges of incidents that allegedly happened years ago.

But there is a clear legal distinction between the Talbot and Malia cases: While the statute of limitations has expired for civil damages in the Malia case, Doherty's case falls within the time frame.

The statute of limitations on a civil suit for child sex abuse is 12 years, but the time limit does not start until the person turns 18. Doherty is now 32. He turned 18 in 1986 and filed his lawsuit just days before his 30th birthday when the 12-year limit would have expired. The statute of limitations for a criminal complaint was six years, though it was eliminated in 1999.

But the institutions Talbot was associated with argue that the alleged perpetrator, not them, should be held liable.

They say that they should not be vulnerable to a lawsuit because the statute of limitations applies only to "actions based upon sexual intercourse...or a sexual act." The claims against the institutions are for negligence and infliction of emotional distress, not for a sexual act, they say.

But Doherty's lawyers argue that the law is meant to cover a broad range of claims arising out of sexual abuse of minors.

The suit alleges that school officials, the Jesuits and the Diocese knew or should have known about Talbot's alleged behavior.

Doherty accuses Talbot of molesting him while Talbot served as a parish priest at St. Jude's Church in Freeport and Sacred Heart Church in Yarmouth, and while an English teacher and soccer coach at Cheverus. According to the lawsuit, Talbot used alcohol and intimidation to abuse Doherty, and also befriended Doherty's parents for the purpose of gaining access to the student.

Doherty did tell one other teacher about the abuse but asked the teacher not to tell anyone, the Rev. John Keegan, president of Cheverus, said when the suit was filed in 1998.

Keegan said the teacher involved was young and did not know that he was required to report the allegation to authorities. The teacher, Frank Hale, now works outside the United States and could not be reached for comment.

The suit says the abuse stopped in 1985 after Doherty told Hale, though Doherty's lawyers could not say why.

Efforts to locate Talbot were unsuccessful and officials at the Jesuits' regional headquarters did not return telephone calls. Talbot's lawyer, John N. Kelly, refused to discuss the case. Doherty also declined.

Melissa A. Hewey, the lawyer representing the school and the Jesuit order, said she is confident the school did not know about any inappropriate sexual behavior by Talbot.

When Doherty first filed suit, the school moved quickly to suspend Talbot. The priest was sent to a treatment facility in Maryland. The school also notified Cheverus parents about the allegations.

The accusations prompted the school to set up a mechanism enabling students to report abuse or other problems to outside counselors unaffiliated with the school.

The student handbook distributed at orientation lists the telephone numbers for an independent psychologist at the Spurwink School and former Portland Deputy Police Chief John Brennan, now a Catholic deacon for churches in Cape Elizabeth and Windham.

No criminal charges were filed against Talbot, and police did not investigate the case when the accusations were made in 1998. At the time, the statute of limitations for criminal charges was six years, and had long since expired.

At the time the suit was filed, few people were aware that Cheverus officials were also dealing with another set of sexual abuse allegations involving a Cheverus teacher.

In 1997, a former student enrolling his son at Cheverus insisted the boy not take classes with Malia, a respected teacher and successful coach whose career spanned 30 years. The former student claimed that Malia had abused him while he was at Cheverus 25 years earlier.

Several men have since come forward to say that Malia had sexual contact with them while they were students there in the 1960s and 1970s. Contacted by the Portland Press Herald earlier this month, Malia admitted to having sexual contact with students and said the behavior stopped "a long time ago."

School officials have expressed sympathy and remorse.

Lilley said those statements are one reason he would like to see Doherty's lawsuit proceed.

"What concerns us is, reading all the things we hear from Cheverus in the Malia case, that seems to fly in the face of all the actions taken in the Doherty case," Lilley said.

"You can't interpose a defense like that in court and be giving lip service in the press that you want to help people," he said.

Hewey, Cheverus' lawyer, said there is no inconsistency between the school's public and legal positions.

"I think there's a difference between being sympathetic and wanting to help and defending against a civil suit," Hewey said. "One is the school's reaction to a member of their family and another is a lawyer's reaction to a lawsuit."

In the case of Malia, the first person making the accusation refused to make a formal complaint. Instead of suspending Malia upon learning of the allegation, the school gave him a psychological evaluation, which showed he was no threat to children, the school has said. Malia also agreed to take early retirement at the end of the school year.

Although it notified the Department of Human Services about the complaint against Malia in October 1997, the school did not alert the district attorney's office until Talbot's suit was filed in July 1998. Another person came forward in 1999 with allegations of abuse by Malia, and the district attorney's office then launched an investigation.

Now Portland police are taking a closer look at the Talbot civil case as part of the Malia investigation.

"We're planning on speaking to a number of people including Father Talbot to see if he has any information with respect to Malia and his behavior," said Lt. Joseph Loughlin, head of investigations for the Portland Police Department.

Police interviews with recent graduates have not led to any evidence that Malia assaulted students since September 1993, the earliest date for which a criminal case could be brought.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:


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