Settlement Rejected in Church Sex-Abuse Case

By Gregory D. Kesich
Portland Press Herald [Portland ME]
June 3, 2003

The plaintiff in Maine's only active priest sex-abuse lawsuit has rejected a settlement offer from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland.

The move paves the way for a trial in the fall and a subsequent showdown with the church before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

Church officials attended a May 23 settlement conference in Portland and renewed offers of a cash settlement and mediation to Michael Fortin of Winslow. Fortin alleges he was sexually abused by the Rev. Raymond Melville for seven years, beginning in 1985, when Fortin was 13 and Melville was his parish priest in Augusta.

The offer and its refusal are unusual. Bishop Joseph Gerry has already been dismissed from the case on constitutional grounds, leaving only Melville as a defendant. That means even if Fortin's suit against Melville is successful, the church could not be forced to pay any damages.

But Fortin plans to appeal Gerry's dismissal to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, also known as the Law Court. The goal of the appeal is to overturn the current legal doctrine that makes Maine one of the most difficult states in the country to sue a church for the actions of individual clergy members. While bishops in Arizona, Massachusetts and New Hampshire have recently been held responsible for abusive priests under their supervision, church officials in Maine are virtually exempt from those claims.

The bishop's lawyer said the church offered to settle with Fortin because Gerry approaches lawsuits against the church not only as a party but also as a pastor.

"Settlement is more healing for everybody," said Frederick Moore, of Robinson Krieger and McCallum, the Portland firm that represents the church. "These are tragic cases under any circumstance."

Moore said the church also has an interest in settling a case that is likely bound for appeal. Every lawsuit is expensive, he said, and they also contain an element of risk.

"We never like to see a case go forward when it can be settled," he said.

Fortin's lawyer, Sumner Lipman of Augusta, refused comment. Fortin could not be reached for comment.

Another lawyer who has unsuccessfully tried to hold a religious organization responsible for alleged sex abuse by a minister said the settlement offer by the Catholic Church is an attempt to avoid a decision that could open it up to future lawsuits.

"I think (church officials) see the tide is changing, and if the Law Court reaches a decision against the church, there is a can of worms opened up," said Verne Paradie of Auburn.

The decision that prevents alleged abuse victims from suing a church was issued in 1996, in Swanson v. The Roman Catholic Bishop of Portland.

The case dealt specifically with the question of whether a court could look at the relationship between the bishop and a priest who had a sexual affair with an adult woman in his parish after she came to him for marriage counseling. The decision was written five years before church abuse allegations in Boston made national headlines.

Writing for the majority, then-Chief Justice Daniel Wathen ruled that examining the relationship between Gerry and the priest would involve the examination of church teachings on sin, penance and reconciliation.

"Because of the existence of these constitutionally protected beliefs governing ecclesiastical relationships, clergy members cannot be treated in the law as though they were common-law employees," he wrote.

Since that decision, church hierarchy is routinely excused from negligence claims in sex abuse cases. Sex abuse victims can still sue the individual clergy members, but they rarely have many assets. Without the prospect of a large damage award, plaintiff's attorneys often turn down the cases.

Fortin claims that while he was being abused by Melville, Gerry knew the priest had a history of sexual abuse. According to documents Lipman released last year, Gerry received a letter in 1990 from a man who said Melville had taken advantage of him sexually during the early 1980s. Gerry wrote back assuring the man that he would take action.

But Fortin claims that his abuse continued for two more years while Melville remained an active priest. Because the bishop knew about the allegation against Melville, the church bears responsibility for the abuse, according to Fortin's complaint.

Melville could not be reached Monday for comment. He lives in Washington County and is no longer an active priest.

Moore argues that the church is not responsible for Melville's actions even without the constitutional issue. In a document prepared before the settlement conference, Moore said that in 1990, when Gerry received the letter, Fortin was already 18, "at least two years past the age of consent set forth in Maine's criminal law."

Gerry did not learn of Fortin's allegation until 2000, when the suit was filed.

Staff Writer Gregory D. Kesich can be contacted at 791-6336 or at:

Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.