Records Detail Dead Priest's History of Child Sex Abuse

Foster's Daily Democrat [Portland ME]
June 6, 2005

[See also the investigative documents about Sabatino referenced in this article and an additional letter later released by the Attorney General (see PDF pp. 21-24). On the limitations of those documents, see also Records Leave Some Questions Unanswered, by John Richardson, Portland Press Herald, June 5, 2005.]

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — After the parents of a 6-year-old Lewiston girl complained in 1958 that their daughter had been sexually abused by a Roman Catholic priest, they felt assured that he would be kept away from other children.

The Rev. Lawrence Sabatino was quickly transferred to a parish in Portland, but he continued to have access to young girls.

Sabatino died in 1990 at age 65. Since that time, 13 other women have come forward, either personally or through family members, to report that Sabatino abused them after his transfer to St. Peter's Church. Most say they were between 7 and 13 at the time.

The case, detailed in the Maine Sunday Telegram, is the only one involving a Maine priest accused of continuing to abuse children after being reported to the Diocese of Portland.

Many of the allegations came from women who were invited by Sabatino to participate in Sodality, an after-school children's club at St. Peter's. He got the girls to play games like hide-and-seek, they said, and would pick one girl to hide with and then abuse her.

Sabatino was never charged with sexual abuse or named in a civil lawsuit. But the accusations against him stand out among the more than 60 Maine priests and church employees accused of sexually abusing children over the past 75 years.

"It's the worst," said Sue Bernard, spokeswoman for the diocese, who suggested that personnel changes and a lack of communication may have made it possible for Sabatino to have contact with children despite the church's intent that he be watched closely.

"When he was first moved, the information was passed along very well to the pastor involved at St. Peter's," Bernard said. "After the pastor left, the communication broke down."

A Portland native and Cheverus High School graduate, Sabatino served as a priest in Maine for 35 years.

"He was well-liked, a very popular person, everywhere he went. This is really a big shock," said his nephew, Joseph Sabatino of Windham.

Investigative documents released last month by the Maine Attorney General's Office for the first time publicly identified Sabatino and 19 other dead priests accused of sexual abuse.

Patricia Butkowski, whose parents made the 1958 complaint against Sabatino, told the Telegram that she hopes the recurring nightmare that started when she was 6 will fade away.

"It could have been stopped," Butkowski said.

Family members said they first reported the abuse to a police officer in Lewiston, only to be told that they would have to talk to Bishop Daniel Feeney.

The family said it was assured that Sabatino would be removed from parish work and kept away from children.

A case of that kind would not be handled that way today, said Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin.

"Society's whole approach to these types of crimes was totally different 50 years ago, and then you add to it the church's and the priests' standing in the community, and it complicates it even more," she said.

State investigators reviewed the case for a potential criminal charge against church officials who reassigned Sabatino, but too much time had passed and people involved had died, Robbin said. The allegations against Sabatino were too old to prosecute, even if he were still alive.

Bernard noted that church policy has changed and that a priest faces removal from active ministry following one credible allegation of abuse.

After the Attorney General's 2004 report on sexual abuse of children in the Maine church, then-Bishop Joseph Gerry singled out the Sabatino case and the pain that it continues to cause.

"On behalf of the church, I apologize to the victims for their immeasurable suffering," he wrote in a public statement.


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