The Portland Press Herald [Portland ME]
January 8, 2023
By Emily Allen and Eric Russell
More than a dozen people once barred by statutes of limitations are suing the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland.
When the Rev. Lawrence Sabatino allegedly sexually abused a 6-year-old Ann Marie Burke at St. Peter Parish nearly 60 years ago, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland already was aware of at least one other girl Sabatino had reportedly abused at a different church in Lewiston several years earlier.
The church moved Sabatino from Lewiston to Portland in 1958, after 6-year-old Patricia Butkowski‘s parents presented church officials with evidence the priest had sexually abused their daughter, a report from the Maine Attorney General’s office revealed 46 years later.
Records show Sabatino was ordered not to contact Patricia or her family and to stop “playing games” with little girls. But when the priest arrived at St. Peter, he was allowed to oversee a group of young girls, including Ann, who met weekly to play games like hide-and-seek. Sabatino would pick one of the girls to “hide with.”
Ann wasn’t able to report the abuse at the time because of the trauma it caused her, according to her attorneys. By the time Ann – who is now 64 and goes by her married name, Ann Allen – was old enough to understand what happened to her, her right to sue had expired. Butkowski and Allen have agreed to be named and share their stories with the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.
Today, Allen is one of 13 people who have sued the diocese since Maine lawmakers in 2021 removed the statute of limitations to allow people with decades-old claims to file civil complaints. At least a hundred other people with similar stories of abuse involving several organizations in Maine have connected with attorneys. Many have resulted in settlements, and many more will.
For those plaintiffs, sharing their painful memories is about more than monetary damages and publicity. They are 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.
“We believe (the diocese) had actual knowledge of a very serious problem and intended to prevent families and children from knowing about it,” said Portland attorney Michael Bigos, who is representing the 13 plaintiffs. “All of this abuse was completely preventable.”
In response, the church has taken a familiar position and is putting its weight behind challenging the law that made this increase in legal action possible.
Attorneys for the Diocese of Portland, led by Gerald Petruccelli, argued in November court filings that lawmakers overstepped their bounds by allowing people with previously-expired claims to sue the diocese, which operated under the assumption it would always be subject to the statute of limitations and therefore protected once time ran up.
Boston attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who has represented dozens of clients in sexual abuse cases against the Catholic Church, including those detailed in a groundbreaking Boston Globe report from 2002, said the Portland diocese’s challenge is not surprising.
The diocese “is continuing its playbook of denying victims justice and causing additional pain,” he said. Garabedian estimated he has 20 clients already in Maine who have older abuse claims and are now considering filing lawsuits against the diocese and the Jesuit-run Cheverus High School in Portland.
Garabedian said he’s waiting to see how the constitutionality argument plays out before officially filing lawsuits.
“I believe that the number of clergy sexual abuse victims who have come forward in Maine is only the beginning of many more victims coming forward,” he said.
Millions of dollars are at stake as the diocese faces a “large but currently unknowable number of cases that have been time-barred for two decades or longer,” church attorneys wrote.
Indeed, the national abuse scandal already has created massive financial risk. Dioceses in many other states, including New York, have filed for bankruptcy protection to deal with the high costs of litigation and settlements. Others have sold off real estate assets to free up cash.
It’s about more than money for the church, too.
“The issue is more broadly about whether history can be rewritten because a current generation regrets what occurred in real time in a former generation,” the Portland diocese wrote in its challenge. “That is simply outside the authority of any legislative branch of any democratically elected government.”
The diocese’s objections to the new law could make it to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. But first, Superior Justice Thomas McKeon, who is overseeing all of the cases filed against the diocese so far, will hear arguments at the end of the month in the state’s Business and Consumer Court.
Petruccelli argued that allowing people to sue retroactively places the diocese at an unfair disadvantage. The claims are so old that most witnesses, and even the priests and clergy accused, are dead and unable to testify. Sabatino died in 1990.
These claims also interfere with the diocese’s “vested rights,” or the rights an organization gathers before a statute takes effect, according to the church.
The statute of limitation question has been debated for years. Maine lawmakers have made several changes to the statute of limitations for civil claims, but not for prosecutors’ ability to pursue older criminal cases.
In 2000, the Maine Legislature passed a law that indefinitely extended the statute of limitations for most civil claims about child sex abuse, but only for cases alleged to have occurred after 1987. Many of the claims in the 13 lawsuits date back to the 1950s and 1960s.
In 2007, Maine lawmakers considered creating a “look-back window,” or a finite period of time where survivors of abuse could come forward no matter how long ago the abuse happened. That effort failed. New York passed a similar law last year that created a one-year window for survivors to bring older claims that faces legal challenges.
The Catholic Church has challenged efforts to eliminate or roll back statutes of limitations, often unsuccessfully.
In 2015, the Connecticut Supreme Court rejected the Hartford Diocese’s claim that a retroactive change was unconstitutional. That ruling, however, lists Maine as one of 24 states whose courts consider retroactively applied statutes of limitations as invalid, although there is no case law here so the matter is not settled.
‘REMEDY FOR JUSTICE’
Rep. Lori Gramlich, an Old Orchard Beach Democrat, said she sponsored the 2021 bill because she’s never felt like institutions, including the Catholic Church, have fully accepted responsibility for their role in allowing abuse to happen.
Danna Hayes, spokesperson for the Maine Attorney General’s Office, said lawmakers did check with the attorney general’s office regarding the bill’s constitutionality before it was signed into law. The office’s chief deputy, Christopher Taub, briefed lawmakers on the history and arguments on both sides, but ultimately, there was no clear precedent.
“He provided a very detailed analysis of the proposed law and a survey of what’s been decided in other states,” said former Rep. Thom Harnett, D-Gardiner, who co-chaired the Judiciary Committee last year when the bill was debated. “In the end, the state was confident it could defend the law in court.”
But Harnett said he believes repealing the statute of limitations shouldn’t even have been needed.
“Rather than be open about historical misbehavior, the church has done everything it can to combat these claims,” he said. “Even now, they are saying, ‘We are going to litigate this to the end.’”
Harnett said one of the unfortunate aspects of the diocese’s challenge is that it might deter people who might finally have been ready to come forward.
“I think the potential of delay is certainly not an incentive,” he said.
Dmitry Bam, vice dean at the University of Maine School of Law, reviewed the diocese’s motion and said there are good arguments to be made on both sides, so it’s hard to predict how the state supreme court will rule. He said because there is no federal guidance, the matter has been left to states.Advertisement
“It’s all a balance,” he said. “I think you want victims to be able to have remedy for justice, but you also want to allow defendants to put on an adequate defense.”
The diocese’s latest challenge also claimed that survivors had plenty of time to come forward with their allegations. Others argue it takes years to reconcile abuse.
Rep. Lori Gramlich, D-Old Orchard Beach Courtesy photo
That’s how it was for Gramlich. She is herself a survivor of child sexual abuse, something she shared publicly for the first time when introducing her bill.
Gramlich said that granting survivors the ability to file lawsuits offers them not only a chance at justice, but also closure and relief. If the new law is overturned, Gramlich said it would be “a slap in the face to all those folks who have had the courage to step forward.”
“It’s very disheartening to think that when a survivor has the nerve to say something, they are told to wait and wait, and to be fought every step of the way,” Gramlich said. “These stories are real. These things happened.”
Allen cried as she announced her lawsuit against the church in December, saying it was “probably one of the hardest things” she has ever done in her life. When she moved back to Maine after decades spent in California, she said it was uncomfortable being surrounded by so many things that reminded her of the abuse.Advertisement
[PHOTO: Ann Allen wipes a tear away as she speaks, flanked by her lawyers Michael Bigos and Jessica Arbour, during a news conference where they announced the filing of a civil complaint against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer]
Robert Hoatson, a former Catholic priest who founded a New Jersey-based nonprofit, Road to Recovery, to assist survivors of sexual assault, said he was heartened to see so many new lawsuits after the law changed. Especially because Maine’s diocese has failed, repeatedly, to make good on promises to people who have been abused, Hoatson said.
“I’ve told victims over the years: You’re going to face opposition and it’s going to come from the institution that’s supposed to be the most moral,” he said. “I think the church is waiting for us to die. That’s a very sad thing to say, but they just keep stalling and issuing motions. They are OK paying their lawyers millions of dollars but not victims for the abuse they suffered.”
The Catholic Church abuse scandal became public in early 2002, largely because of reporting by The Boston Globe that found dozens of priests committed abuse for years and were often moved from parish to parish to keep the allegations quiet.
Boston attorney Garabedian represented dozens of clients in complaints against the Archdiocese of Boston in the early 2000s, which led to dozens of financial settlements.
The growing scandal prompted a review by the Maine Attorney General’s Office from 2002 to 2004 into the local diocese, which acknowledged some priests had been credibly abused and paid damages to some survivors.
But the diocese has never been fully transparent about all of the allegations, or about how priests were or were not disciplined when abuse claims were substantiated.
In recent years, in a national effort to improve transparency and rebuild credibility, some dioceses have released lists of credibly abused priests. New Hampshire did so in 2019. That same year the USA Northeast Province of Jesuits released a list of 50 credibly accused priests, which included seven who were at one time employed by Cheverus High School, the Jesuit-run Portland private school. Some of them had never before been publicly named.
Lists like these help bring closure to some survivors, says Mike McDonnell, communications director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
“The victims are able to see, ‘Who is responsible for the transfer of a known predator?’ Or, ‘Who knew, and didn’t say anything’?” McDonnell said. “The victims and the survivors are able to set their eyes on something substantial that can help piece together parts they have questioned for many years.”
Maine’s diocese has never released a comprehensive list.
Attorneys like Bigos and Garabedian are interested in the evidence they argue is still there and has been kept hidden – including reports that some survivors and their families remember making, but that didn’t appear in the Attorney General’s report 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.
[PHOTO: The Rev. Lawrence Sabatino]
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.
At the same time, the report noted that the diocese’s failure to notify parishioners of the allegations against priests assigned to their parishes placed children at risk of abuse.
That chain of abuse was evident with Sabatino.
Documents from the attorney general’s report listed several credible allegations against the priest, mirroring Allen’s claims of abuse at St. Peter, with multiple families reporting that he abused young girls in Allen’s church group. In addition to Portland and Lewiston, Sabatino was assigned to posts in Millinocket, Brewer, Brownville and Pittsfield.
The report showed no other known case “of a priest allegedly committing new offenses against minors after the diocese had received a report from a victim alleging child sexual abuse against that priest.”
Bigos said that review was too limited, and plans to depose several retired priests who he said disclosed reports of abuse that aren’t in the report.
“We need to force the diocese to say under oath what it has and what it doesn’t have,” Bigos said.
Garabedian said he wants the Maine Attorney General’s Office to investigate whether there’s any prosecutable criminality. The attorney general’s office noted in its 2004 report there was little it could do even then, by way of prosecution, because of statutes of limitation that remain in effect for criminal cases today.
“The sexual abuse of a child is a crime, and the cover-up of the sexual abuse of a child is a crime,” he said.