Victim Has Control This Time

By Bill Nemitz
Portland Press Herald [Maine]
May 8, 2005

Sometime in the coming months, Michael Fortin will have a big decision to make.

Propelled by last week's Maine Supreme Judicial Court decision that clears a path through the legal thicket so he can sue the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, Fortin can have his day in court and watch everyone from former Bishop Joseph Gerry on down explain how one of their priests - the Rev. Raymond Melville - managed to get his hands on Fortin 20 years ago at St. Mary's Parish in Augusta.

Or Fortin can accept an all-but-certain settlement offer from the diocese, declare victory over the church's circle-the-wagons legal strategists and, at long last, get on with his life. His legacy would remain intact: Without Fortin, the diocese would still be lawsuit-proof thanks to a 1997 court ruling (in a nonsexual case involving a priest and a married couple) that protected it from being held accountable for the actions of its pedophile priests.

"The impetus behind this suit was to change the law," said Sumner Lipman, Fortin's attorney. "If a reasonable settlement is made, I don't think because of (Fortin's) desire for a trial that he's going to turn it down."

Meaning it's too soon to tell whether Gerry, now in retirement at St. Anselm's College in Manchester, N.H., will have to come back to Kennebec Superior Court in Augusta, raise his right hand and start answering questions that have yet to be asked in open court anywhere in Maine about what he knew, when he knew it and, most importantly, what he did or didn't do about it.

If Lipman's deposition of Gerry last May is any indication, those answers would reveal a bishop who was remarkably disengaged from the day-to-day handling of a scandal that in recent years came to envelop the diocese. Repeatedly throughout his daylong session with Lipman, Gerry said the details of such matters were handled - often without his direct involvement - by the late Auxiliary Bishop Amadee Proulx (who obviously cannot be called to testify) and a coterie of other diocesan officials (who still can.)

Thus, in addition to Gerry, Fortin and other victims could finally watch the likes of Msgr. Michael Henchal and Msgr. Joseph Ford, both former diocesan chancellors, explain how Melville managed to bounce from parish to parish even after "serious concerns" had been raised about his conduct with children.

Some victims, particularly those who settled their claims against the diocese because they concluded at the time it would forever be immune from lawsuits, would undoubtedly relish the opportunity to sit in open court and, at long last, watch the church hierarchy squirm.

So, for that matter, would Roman Catholics who will not breathe easily until all of those church's windows are thrown wide open and all of the lingering questions - including who, when and where - are fully answered.

Still, Fortin stopped short of any flat-out predictions when he spoke briefly to the media last week. His now-landmark lawsuit, he said, "has always been about accountability, and we are moving closer to that."

Maybe that means he's itching to go to trial.

Or maybe he's ready to settle and let some other plaintiff pick up the ball and run with it.

Either way, what happens next is - and without question should be - Michael Fortin's call.

He's earned it.