The Portland Press Herald [Portland ME]
August 14, 2023
By Emily Allen
The two men sat side by side, staring at their folded hands, while their attorney introduced them to a room of reporters. It took them years to come forward as victims of childhood sexual abuse.
Robert Rossignol was 12 years old when he said the Rev. John Audibert abused him at St. Catherine Church in Washburn. Now 67, he said his family was so devout, he didn’t feel comfortable discussing the abuse with his parents.
“The sun rose with the priest, in my mother and father’s eyes,” Rossignol said. “So I never said anything to them.”
Glen Witham was 14 when he said the Rev. John Harris began abusing him while he lived at the Rumford Boys’ Home across the street from Harris’ church. Witham, now 52, said Harris was counseling him after his mother died.
Growing up, the men said the Catholic Church was upheld as a resource for the troubled, an institution to be revered.
The men and four other anonymous plaintiffs filed complaints Monday against the Roman Catholic Bishop of Portland alleging they were sexually abused as children by church employees. They say church leaders knew about the abuse and not only failed to respond but went to great lengths to conceal the abuse — priests were often reassigned to different parishes following reports they were abusing young parishioners, the complaints state, none of which was disclosed to parishioners.
A spokesperson for the diocese did not respond to calls and emails Monday asking about the new complaints.
Witham and Rossignol’s attorneys say they have filed 30 complaints against the diocese since the state law changed in 2021 to remove all remaining time barriers for civil childhood sexual abuse cases. Those complaints are on hold while the Maine Supreme Judicial Court is weighing the constitutionality of the law. The diocese has also asked the court to decide whether it’s fair to sue an organization for abuse so complaints alleging more recent instances of abuse, including Witham’s, are also on pause.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland has argued the statute of limitations existed to protect the ability to try a case. The longer a person waits to sue, the diocese says, the older witnesses and evidence become, and the harder they are to find.
Timothy Kenlan, who represents Witham and Rossignol, said many victims don’t fully come to terms with their abuse until their 50s.
“What we know from the psychological research is the average age of when survivors come forward is 52,” Kenlan said Monday. Sometimes that’s due to fear of stigma, he said, or fears of not being believed or retribution.
While most of these clients could be waiting years for a trial, Kenlan said he is hopeful their cases will be allowed to move forward after Vermont’s highest court upheld a similar law in June.
The new complaints, filed in Cumberland County Superior Court, describe abuse that occurred between 1954 and 1988 from northern to southern Maine.
Kenlan said he hopes the lawsuits will “ensure that the organizations and the people involved in perpetrating this abuse against children are held accountable,” and that they’ll prevent further abuse in and outside the church.
“That’s how systems are changed, that’s how processes are changed,” he said.
Most of the accused priests and nuns have died or were removed from ministry years ago. Two of those named in Monday’s complaints appear to have never been publicly accused before.
Rossignol said Audibert abused him in the late 1960s when he was an altar boy. He said Audibert told him that the abuse was “a normal thing” and that it was a “normal part of growing up.”
Audibert was removed from active ministry twice: once in 1994 following allegations that he had abused a child at a Caribou church in the 1970s (he returned to the ministry the following year after attending a rehabilitation program); and again in 2002, after confessing to his congregation that he had a sexual relationship with a minor years earlier in Lewiston. That victim was in prison for abusing a 10-year-old, who in turn violated a three-year-old.
He promised “before God” there were no other victims. The Vatican disrobed him in 2006, according to Rossingol’s complaint.
“It just needs to change,” Rossignol said Monday. “I will not step foot in a Catholic church, ever again in my life. Ever.”
Audibert, who appears to still live in Maine, did not return a voicemail Monday asking about the allegations.
Witham said he would often play at Harris’ church with other kids because it was just across the street from the Rumford Boys’ Home.
Knowing Witham loved cars, Harris lured the boy in by inviting him to check out the priest’s Pontiac Trans-Am. Harris was already abusing Witham when the boy’s mother died around 1987, the complaint states, and he was referred to Harris for grief counseling.
Harris has been named in several other complaints filed against the diocese and was last known to live in Canada after he was removed from the ministry in 2003. He was permanently defrocked in 2015.
Witham said he decided to come forward after seeing another victim on the news.
“I know some of the other kids that were in the group home, he probably did the same thing to them,” Witham said.
Four other complaints were filed Monday under the names Jane and John Doe.
The oldest among them alleges the Rev. Maurice Plourd, who was assigned to St. Rose of Lima in Chisholm, abused multiple boys between 1954 and 1957.
It appears to be the first time Plourd has been publicly accused of sexually abusing a child. The complaint alleges he would routinely “perform this abuse ritual in the presence of multiple altar boys, abusing each in turn.”
The complaint alleges Plourd would also abuse the boys when he took them swimming at Long Pong in Livermore.
Plourd died in January 1994 following a car crash in Presque Isle that resulted in several emergency surgeries, according to the Sun Journal. He had retired 10 years earlier.
Another man alleged he was abused multiple times by one of the nuns working for the diocese in the mid-1950s while he was a ward at the Healy Asylum in Lewiston. The nun is not identified in the lawsuit.
And years after leaving Healy and reuniting with his family, the man said he was abused by the Rev. Antonio Girardin at his parish in Pittsfield.
Girardin “lavished” the boy and his family with gifts, the complaint alleges. He made the boy an altar boy and got his father a position of authority with the Knights of Columbus. He bought them a five-horsepower outboard motor, a wooden statue of the Virgin Mother and expensive books.
Girardin has been the subject of multiple allegations of abuse, dating back to 1943 when he was accused of abusing a girl in South Berwick. Girardin was also accused of abusing three boys at parishes in Pittsfield and Millinocket.
He was one of more than two dozen church employees whose names were listed in a report from the Office of the Maine Attorney General following a public records lawsuit by the Portland Press Herald in 2005.
Girardin died unexpectedly in 1974, according to the complaint.
A third man suing the diocese said he was abused by the Rev. Clement Thibodeau, who was a chaplain at the Notre Dame Institute in Alfred in the late 1960s.
The man was about 12 years old when Thibodeau invited him to his personal living quarters where he gave him and others alcohol before isolating and abusing the boy, the complaint states.
He said he was abused several more times before attempting to run away from the school with a classmate. Police returned the boys to the school, where according to the complaint, they were “corporally punished.”
Thibodeau had retired by 2002 when he was called out of retirement that May to fill in as an interim pastor at St. Thomas Aquinas in Madawaska, where Audibert had just made his confession.
Thibodeau died in 2017. His body was found near Upper Pistol Lake that September, a couple of months after the 85-year-old was reported missing in Caribou.
A woman suing the diocese anonymously said she was abused by Sister Helen McKeough when she was seven years old. McKeough was the principal of the diocese-run Indian Island School at the time.
The complaint says McKeough first abused the girl after finding her sitting on another teacher’s lap reading a book, which she called “inappropriate,” and took the girl to her office where she used a paddle to hit the girl.
McKeough still lives in Penobscot County, according to the complaint. It appears to be the first time she has been publicly accused of sexually abusing a child.
A year later, the woman alleges she was abused by the Rev. David Cote at the nearby St. Ann Rectory. She says Cote brought her inside the rectory’s kitchen one day in the summer of 1978 while she was playing outside and abused her. The girl’s father witnessed the abuse, according to the complaint, and confronted Cote.
The family quickly moved, the complaint states.
Cote, who is also accused of abusing three men at St. Ann’s, retired in 2014 to Limestone, according to the complaint. A phone number for Cote appeared to be disconnected or not working Monday. View comments (1)