Commentary: For how much longer can the Portland diocese play dumb?

The Portland Press Herald [Portland ME]

March 12, 2023

By Siobhan Brett

We know too much for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland to stonewall allegations of abuse. If 20 complaints can’t change that, will anything?

People are fond of saying, “That wouldn’t happen today.”

Occasionally this is offered in wistful remembrance of one or other bygone practice. More often it’s said with relief, a reassuring statement, some clear contemplation of how much more we know, now, how far we have come, how thresholds of acceptability have changed.

Six civil complaints filed last week allege that the late Rev. Lawrence Sabatino abused plaintiffs in Lewiston and Portland when they were between 5 and 11 years old in the 1950s and 1960s. This brings to 20 the number of childhood sexual abuse lawsuits recently filed against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland.

In the offices of his law firm Wednesday, attorney Michael Bigos set out the infuriating, sickening arc of the case brought by his client Patricia Harkins Butkowski, now 70. Butkowski joined six other women that afternoon; Ann Allen, who came forward late last year, and five others who were doing so publicly for the first time.

The 2004 report by the Maine Attorney General’s Office (a document we are still forced to use as a compass, almost 20 years later), Bigos noted, “described the behavior of law enforcement in the 1940s and 1950s as something that just wouldn’t happen anymore today.”

Speaking in a gentle tone with care and attention to detail, Bigos told those gathered that Butkowski’s brother, a witness to the abuse in 1958, told their mother what Sabatino had done. Their mother went to the Lewiston Police Department, which did nothing. The family went to the parish itself, which did nothing. They went to the Portland diocese, which did nothing. A “disinterested county attorney” at the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office also chose to do nothing.

That’s four successive nothings in Butkowski’s case, each a blow that had to be recovered from before pursuit of the next. It is nothing short of remarkable that her family found the strength to exhaust these avenues. And nothing short of abhorrent that there was not even a remote chance of redress at their end.

Sitting in the office boardroom, blinds down so that TV cameras could broadcast a group of people retelling their pain, I started thinking about things that you might reasonably expect wouldn’t happen today.

As I watched the row of people brought together by accounts of childhood abuse that they say destroyed their ability to trust, seven women softly crying, on and off, alternately gripping each other’s hands under the table or reaching out to grasp a shoulder, I found myself thinking that it was the sort of scene that “wouldn’t happen today.” That it should not have to happen today.

Remember that these plaintiffs are not only confronting their own pasts, not only confronting the public, but also having to confront a defendant that is refusing to apologize to them while working overtime to eliminate the basis for their case and you might well say to yourself: Something like this wouldn’t happen today.

Wednesday’s news conference referred to knowledge of the abuse – that we are certain that the culture of rampant child sex abuse by Catholic clerics was known locally, known nationally, known internationally. Not now, not since – that it was known then.

The international aspect, the scale of it, and the transformative extent of it, carry particular weight for me.

Where is any of that transformation evident in the response of the Portland diocese?

While organizations and institutions across Maine are determining how to best acknowledge, apologize and account for allegations of child sexual abuse, the Portland diocese continues to play dumb. In choosing only to challenge the constitutionality of the law that led to these suits, it acts as though it’s caught up in some kind of world first.

I moved to the U.S. from a country locked in what’s lately and cheaply referred to as “a reckoning.” In 2011, the year I started working in journalism in Dublin, an Ireland-altering report found that reporting mechanisms designed to ferret out the worst of the Irish Catholic Church’s abuse were rendered null by Vatican stonewalling.

Responding, the then-prime minister gave a vehement speech, more than one line of which I know by heart. Referring to fresh child protection efforts, it referred to a goal of “maximum protection and security without intruding on the hectic, magical business of being a child.”

The hectic, magical business of being a child.

“I remember every moment of what happened. I’ve never forgotten any second of it,” said Mary Greene, one of the women at Wednesday’s news conference, who says she was abused by Sabatino when she was 8 years old. The only thing she cannot recall, Greene told those gathered, was how she got away. Ann Allen can’t remember that part either.

Words like “brave” don’t come close to describing these women and their attempts, now, to get away. It is unconscionable, in 2023, that the Portland diocese has decided to stand in their way.