Portland Diocese asks for Maine’s highest court to weigh in on childhood sexual abuse law

The Portland Press Herald [Portland ME]

March 2, 2023

By Emily Allen

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland is asking the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to weigh in on whether a 2021 that allows Mainers with previously expired claims of sexual abuse to sue organizations, like the diocese, is constitutional.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland is asking a superior court judge to send its challenge of a 2021 law allowing Mainers with previously expired claims of childhood sexual abuse to sue to Maine’s highest court.

The diocese’s attorney, Gerald Petruccelli, submitted the request Thursday, writing that a ruling by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court would have an impact far beyond the outcome of the 70 open cases currently pending against the church.

“There is substantial public interest in decision of these issues in these cases,” Petruccelli wrote. “Not only will the Law Court’s decision determine the retroactivity of this enactment in many cases, but it will also be important controlling precedent in future disputes about the retroactivity of future laws.”

Lawmakers agreed in 2021 to remove all remaining time barriers on claims of sexual abuse against children.

So far, the change has prompted more than a dozen people to sue the diocese, with claims stretching as far back as the 1950s, but hundreds of other people with claims of abuse involving the church and other organizations or individuals have connected with attorneys. Many have already resulted in private settlements, but some lawyers have said they’re waiting for the courts to rule on the constitutionality question before filing formal complaints.

The diocese filed a challenge in November, saying that lawmakers had no right to remove the statute of limitations, arguing it is unconstitutional because it creates new liability and exposes the church to “tens of millions of dollars” in potential claims.Advertisement

Cumberland County Superior Justice Thomas McKeon ruled this month that the law was constitutional and gave the diocese 21 days to file a request asking him to refer the case to the high court.

If McKeon approves the request, the case would move directly to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. If he denies it, the diocese would still have a chance to appeal his ruling directly.

“The court agrees that these questions are important, given the number of related cases already docketed,” McKeon wrote, with “a large number of new cases anticipated.”

This story will be updated.