Six new childhood sexual abuse lawsuits filed against Portland diocese

WCSH - NBC News Center Maine [Portland ME]

August 14, 2023

By Chloe Teboe

Plaintiffs Robert Rossignol and Glen Witham spoke at a press conference on Monday, August 14 with representing law firm Berman & Simmons.

Monday morning was marked by a sense of heaviness at Berman & Simmons law firm in Portland, as attorneys filed six new lawsuits against the Roman Catholic Bishop of Portland, alleging childhood sexual abuse. That brings the total number of complaints against the Portland diocese by Berman & Simmons to 30.

These six new cases involve five men and one woman. Most of the plaintiffs chose to remain anonymous Monday, except for two: Robert Rossignol, who currently lives in Apollo Beach, Florida, and Glen Witham, who now lives in Augusta. Both of these men overcame the hesitations survivors often experience and spoke to the news media Monday. 

“It just needs to change. It just needs to change. I will not set foot in a Catholic church ever again in my life,” Rossignol said, noting he has a brother and sister who feel the same way.

Rossignol said he was 12 years old when he was abused at St. Catherine Church in Washburn by Father John L. Audibert. He said the abuse continued for a year, and he never told his parents because they were devout Catholics.

“I would say, ‘Mom, that’s not normal,'” Rossignol recalled, regarding general conversations with his mother about abuse in the Catholic church. “[She would say], ‘Well, all the priests do that.’ I said, ‘No, Mom. Not all the priests do that.'”

In 2021, a new Maine law got rid of the statute of limitations for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Rossignol said his mother had died at that point. 

“When it came on [that] the statute of limitations has changed, I said, ‘Wow, mom’s not here. I can do this.’ So, I did,” Rossignol said about coming forward with his story. 

Witham said he was sexually abused as a teenager from 1984 to 1987 while living at the Rumford Boys’ Home, located across the street from St. Athanasius & St. John Church. That’s where he said he met Father John E. Harris.

“He knew I liked cars, and he had a Trans Am,” Witham said. “You can probably get the gist of what happened.”

Witham said he put everything behind him for 40 years, but he decided to come forward in hopes of encouraging others to do the same. 

“We kind of used [clergy members] as someone to talk through your problems with,” Witham said, regarding the kids in the Rumford Boys’ Home, later adding, “I know some of the other kids that are in the group home—[clergy members] probably did the same thing to them.”

Of the four other lawsuits filed Monday, there were complaints against four other clergy members and two nuns. Those incidents allegedly happened in Alfred, Chisholm, Indian Island, Lewiston, and Pittsfield. 

“These represent only a fraction of the cases that we have and the cases that we intend to bring forward in the coming months,” Timothy Kenlan, an attorney with Berman & Simmons, said, noting he himself is also a survivor of sexual abuse. 

Kenlan said psychological research shows most survivors tend to come forward at 52 years old. He said for many, it can be part of the healing process.

“Coming forward and speaking up, speaking openly in whatever way you’re comfortable, is a fundamental first step in recovering and being able to live a full life,” Kenlan said.

NEWS CENTER Maine reached out to the Portland diocese for comment but did not hear back. The Roman Catholic Bishop of Portland has filed an appeal with the Maine Supreme Court, fighting the constitutionality of the new law getting rid of the statute of limitations on childhood sexual abuse lawsuits. It has said the bishop can’t mount a proper defense, since many of the accused priests are dead and aren’t able to testify during trial.

Oral arguments are set to begin later this year.