Some in Maine cannot sue for decades-old child sex abuse claims

The Portland Press Herald [Portland ME]

January 21, 2024

By Emily Allen

Public institutions, including schools, are immune from lawsuits for the alleged incidents, preventing many from filing civil claims, despite legal reform efforts that have eliminated the statute of limitations. One man who says he was victimized calls it ‘another injustice.’

Dale Ashby says he was abused by his high school counselor in the 1970s. When Maine removed its statute of limitations for civil child sex abuse claims in 2021, Ashby thought he would be able to sue the school, but he found out there were other laws preventing him from doing so. 

When he was a teenager, Dale Ashby played the piano in his family’s garage, which was often so cold he could see his breath as he practiced. In the Wells High School yearbook, the seniors in the  of the class of 1971 were each asked to state their ambition.

“Pursue a musical career,” Ashby wrote.

He went on to study music at the University of Southern Maine in Gorham. But he left after two years, disillusioned.

Ashby, now 70, said he suspects this was, at least in part, because he was abused by his high school guidance counselor, who had promised him sanctuary from school bullies.

“Once you’ve been violated like that, you can’t really turn it off or pretend it doesn’t happen,” Ashby said. “I’m sure that it affected me in waysI’m still single after all these years. Here I am almost getting to the end of my life, and I have to reflect on those things.”

Ashby is one of an unknown number of people in Maine who cannot sue the institutions they say are responsible for their abuse. Though Maine recently removed time limits on child sex abuse civil lawsuits, most public entities, including the Wells-Ogunquit Community School District, are protected from civil lawsuits under state law.

Several attorneys told the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram they have had to turn away people who want to sue public schools, the state agency overseeing foster families, law enforcement agencies and the Long Creek Youth Development Center, Maine’s only youth prison.


Ashby spent years trying to get some acknowledgment of what he went through.

In the 1980s, he wrote to the superintendent of Wells High School, telling him his school counselor had abused him for years. By then, the counselor was dead. He died in 1980 in New Hampshire.

The superintendent, Ashby said, wrote back to blame him for not reporting what was happening while he was a student. Ashby said he no longer has a physical copy of that letter.

James Daly, now the Wells-Ogunquit Community School District superintendent, said he was not aware any abuse allegations against the counselor, who was employed by the district 50 years ago.

Daly said he would also be limited in discussing such allegations.

“From my seat, that would sound like a personnel matter,” he said Thursday.

Over the years, Ashby spoke to numerous attorneys who told him that the statute of limitations had expired and that it was too late to sue.

When he heard in 2021 that the state had repealed the statute of limitations for civil claims of childhood sexual abuse, he thought he finally had a chance.

So he made an appointment to meet with Michael Bigos, an attorney who he had seen all over the news because he is representing childhood victims suing Maine’s Catholic diocese.

Bigos told him that public entities like his former school district cannot be sued under the Maine Tort Claims Act, which makes “all governmental entities” immune from civil claims “seeking recovery of damages.”

Sometimes civil abuse lawsuits against public entities can be filed in federal court, where plaintiffs can argue that a public entity abused its authority and used its position to violate a plaintiff’s civil rights, Bigos told the Press Herald. But the standards are high and such cases are difficult to bring forward, he said.

The news hit Ashby hard.

“Why is the Catholic Church open season and somehow the Maine school system is excluded from all that?” he said. “I saw it as another injustice.”


Lawmakers have slowly been chipping away at the barriers to filing civil claims of childhood sexual abuse.

In 2000, they removed the statute of limitations for all claims of alleged abuse after 1987. In 2021, led by Rep. Lori Gramlich, D-Old Orchard Beach, they got rid of that date limit.

Since then, at least 30 people have sued the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, alleging it enabled and hid priests who abused them as children.

The diocese is challenging the constitutionality of that law, and the Maine Supreme Judicial Court heard oral arguments last November.

Advocates say dropping the statute of limitations was monumental for survivors, most of whom don’t come forward until decades later.

Gramlich was in her late 50s when she proposed the bill. It was the first time she said publicly that her stepfather had abused her.

“By the time we’re in a position to want to do something with it and hold our perpetrators to account, the time has lapsed,” she said. “For many survivors, it’s not about suing somebody. It’s about having our voices heard and holding our perpetrators accountable.”

Gramlich said she didn’t know that public entities still had immunity from these claims.

The principle of sovereign and governmental immunity dates back centuries to English common law and the concept that the king could do no wrong. In practical terms, it protects public entities from endless civil lawsuits and the costs that would accompany them.

Staff at the Maine Law and Legislative Reference Library, a nonpartisan office of the Legislature, said they were unable to find any bills within the last decade that attempted to change that section of the Maine Tort Claims law.

The law has only been amended four times – to add exceptions for public vehicles or equipment, public buildings, discharge of pollutants and poor road construction.

Ashby said he would testify in support if lawmakers were to consider changing the law to allow claims like his against public entities.

“Unfettered access to children by abusing adults is a very old problem that society has been well equipped to try to deal with for over a hundred of years,” Ashby said. “And they just haven’t chosen to deal with it, or they’ve chosen to deal with it far too slowly. And as a result, thousands of Maine children have been abused or injured.”


Lawyers and legal experts told the Press Herald that not allowing all victims of abuse equal access to the civil justice system prevents them from trying to stop future abuse and feeling heard.

“The No. 1 reason that they’re filing lawsuits is not for money. It’s for justice,” said Emma Hetherington, a clinical associate professor at the University of Georgia who studies the therapeutic effects of civil justice for child sexual abuse victims. “It’s for their day in court. It’s for public acknowledgement, it’s to have someone believe their story. It’s to protect other people.”

Civil and criminal juries and judges abide by different standards.

To find someone responsible in a criminal case, you have to agree to guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In civil court, guilt is based on a “preponderance of the evidence.”

Meryl Poulin, an attorney who has represented victims of sexual abuse, said civil juries can also rule in a way that acknowledges the effect of abuse.

Poulin recently represented a woman who sued the man she said had abused her for two years, starting when she was 6.

“The civil case was so important to her because it wasn’t just about proving to her this happened,” Poulin said. “It was also about showing the ways in which this had harmed her and had harmed other people.”

The jury ruled in the woman’s favor and awarded her $4.5 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

Advocates say the civil system can give victims back a sense of control.

Melissa Martin, the legal and policy director for the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said sexual violence takes away victims’ choice.

“It’s the time when you did not get to make your own decision, and you did not get to be the one in charge,” she said, “and we know that that is a big part for a lot of survivors of what’s so harmful about experiencing sexual violence. It’s the not getting to be in control of your own body and your own choices.”

But it’s not all about trials. In civil court, Martin said, they can also obtain injunctive relief from a judge – including protection from abuse orders or child custody matters.

“The civil legal system does allow them to have more autonomy and control and choice.”


A key part of the recent lawsuits against the Catholic church involves holding the institution accountable for failing to act.

Bigos has argued that the diocese is responsible because it failed to notify parishioners of alleged abuse when it moved accused priests to new assignments. Many of his lawsuits state that families told church leaders about the abuse and presented them with evidence, but the church did nothing.

Many of the alleged abusers, like Ashby’s, have died.

Bigos said it’s also important for survivors to be able to bring claims against institutions because they often have more money than the accused individuals. But, like other experts, he said it’s almost never about the money.

Advocates say going after institutions allows victims to help make meaningful change.

Hetherington, the Georgia professor, said civil claims can spur new policies deter employers from overlooking alleged abuse.

“It is institutions, it is society, it is organizations, schools and churches who hold themselves up to the public as safe places for your children’s religious, spiritual, educational, moral upbringing … and they can create a situation in which children get abused and you do nothing to remedy it,” she said. “You could prosecute all the perpetrators in the world but until or unless we stop the sources where they’re able to abuse kids, we can’t actually protect kids. If we keep enabling it, it’ll keep happening. So we have to hold them accountable.”

Ashby, who still lives in Maine, eventually went back to school and graduated with a degree in philosophy. He’s now retired after working, among other things, as a technician for a university languages department. He volunteers regularly with Maine Medical Center, the Portland Rossini Club and the Portland Media Center.

He sees volunteering as returning something to his community. Sometimes it feels to him like it’s balancing out the abuse he experienced.

But he still wants accountability.

“I don’t believe that the Maine school system should excuse itself from sexual abuse,” he said.