Judge upholds Maine law on retroactive abuse lawsuits, says Catholic diocese challenge has a point

Catholic News Agency - EWTN [Denver CO]

February 15, 2023

By Kevin J. Jones

Denver, Colo., — A Maine judge has upheld a state law that retroactively eliminates the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse lawsuits, though he acknowledged that attorneys for the Catholic Diocese of Portland raised “serious” constitutional concerns in their legal challenge.

Justice Thomas McKeon of Cumberland County Superior Court upheld a 2021 law that allowed retroactive legal claims regarding sexual abuse allegations. He rejected the argument that the new law was unconstitutional because its retroactive changes violated both due process rights and vested rights, though he said it was a “close” case, the Associated Press reported.

Attorneys for the Diocese of Portland had filed a motion to challenge the law. The motion came in the first of the civil lawsuits now allowed under the 2021 law.

McKeon has halted lawsuit proceedings so that attorneys for the diocese may appeal to Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court. They have 21 days to file an appeal.

Previously, the diocese has said it would plan to take the constitutional question to the state’s highest court. CNA sought comment from the Diocese of Portland but did not receive a response by publication.

Attorney Michael Bigos, who is representing over a dozen plaintiffs in civil lawsuits for alleged sex abuse, welcomed the decision to uphold the law.

“Survivors have suffered a lifetime of pain that has affected their relationships at home, at work, and in the world. Now survivors are empowered to face those who allowed such heinous abuse and hold them accountable,” he said, according to the AP.

At present, there are 13 lawsuits against the Diocese of Portland from men and women who say they were abused as children by Catholic priests and, in at least one case, by a religious sister.

Many abuse claims have resulted in private settlements. More alleged victims with claims of abuse could still file, as some lawyers have delayed filing complaints until constitutional questions are settled in court, the Portland Press Herald reported.

The lawsuits could be very costly for the diocese and any other organization sued under the law.

“If this law is operational, the diocese will be defending a large but currently unknowable number of cases that have been time-barred for two decades or longer, demanding, in the aggregate, tens of millions of dollars,” the Portland diocese’s Jan. 4 court filing had argued.

The diocese’s legal challenge argued that alleged victims had ample time to file lawsuits under the previous statute of limitations. It said the new law, which allows civil cases involving sexual acts against minors to be filed regardless of how long ago the alleged abuse took place, puts the diocese at an unjust disadvantage to defend itself due to various factors, including the fact that most witnesses and accused perpetrators of abuse are deceased.

Maine removed its statute of limitations for child sexual abuse cases in 2000, but this change was not retroactive.

More than 15 years ago, the Maine Attorney General’s Office investigated Catholic sexual abuse. In a report made public in 2005, the attorney general’s office recorded allegations of abuse against more than 60 priests, laymen, and Church employees. Most of the alleged perpetrators were not named. According to the Portland Press Herald, no criminal charges were filed, either due to insufficient evidence or because criminal statutes of limitations had expired.

Reported abuse incidents by clergy peaked in the 1970s, though a few dozen cases of recent abuse by clergy are reported each year, annual reports from the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Child and Youth Protection continue to show.

After a wave of reports of sexual abuse by clergy in 2002, Catholic bishops and other leaders have stressed the importance of background checks and child protection training for seminarians, clergy, staff, and volunteers. They encourage reporting all allegations to civil authorities and continued vigilance against possible abuse.

Kevin J. Jones is a senior staff writer with Catholic News Agency. He was a recipient of a 2014 Catholic Relief Services’ Egan Journalism Fellowship.