Diocese Settles Priest Abuse Claim

By Trevor Maxwell
Portland Press Herald [Portland ME]
August 17, 2005

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland has settled a lawsuit by a man from Sidney who claimed that church leaders failed to protect him from abuse.

Terms of the settlement, announced Tuesday by the law firm representing Michael Fortin, were not disclosed. While neither side signed a confidentiality agreement, they withheld public comment except for a brief statement.

"Both parties have agreed that it is in their interests to put this matter behind them," said part of the statement from Lipman, Katz & McKee of Augusta. "They have achieved a compromise that will enable them to move forward without the burden of further litigation."

The settlement ends a four-year court saga that reached the Maine Supreme Judicial Court and set a legal precedent.

It also answers the question of whether Fortin would accept a settlement or push forward to trial. He turned down a settlement offer from the church in 2003.

Keith Varner, one of the attorneys representing Fortin, had no comment Tuesday on this deal or how it might have differed from the previous offer.

His lawsuit "has always been about accountability," Fortin said at a press conference in May, following the Supreme Court's ruling in his favor. The landmark 5-2 decision said Fortin's lawsuit against the diocese could go forward without violating the protections for church leaders guaranteed in the U.S. and Maine constitutions.

"The impact of the case was a couple months ago, when the law court issued its decision," Varner said Tuesday.

Fortin, 34, originally sued in 2001, before the larger church abuse scandal erupted in the Boston archdiocese and spread nationwide. He continued his fight with lawsuits that slowly climbed the ladder of Maine's court system.

Fortin, a former altar boy and student at St. Mary's School in Augusta, claimed that the Rev. Raymond Melville first abused him in 1985, when he was 13, and continued over a seven-year period.

Fortin was awarded $500,000 in a judgment against Melville, who is on permanent leave from the diocese.

Fortin's subsequent lawsuit against the diocese argued that the priest's superiors knew that Melville posed a risk but did nothing to protect parishioners.

In its decision this spring, the Supreme Court ruled that constitutional protections of church hierarchy are limited when weighed against the welfare of children.

Writing for the majority, Justice Jon Levy said that the church had a duty to keep children safe from abuse, and that compelling public interest allowed the government to get involved in supervision of the clergy.

Voice of the Faithful-Maine, a Catholic reform group that has criticized the Portland diocese for its handling of sex-abuse claims, called Fortin's persistence heroic.

"His actions have far-reaching implications for others wishing to hold the diocese accountable for reassigning known abusers," the group said in a prepared statement. "We see this settlement as a sign of a new diocesan approach in eliminating past legal tactics."

Others in the broad Catholic reform movement called the settlement a first step, but said more needs to be done to hold church leaders accountable.

"We hope that Michael's courage will inspire others who are still suffering in shame and self-blame to come forward and get help," said David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

He said Melville continued to serve in parishes for at least seven years after credible allegations were made against him.

According to court documents, then-Bishop Joseph Gerry received a letter in March 1990 from a Baltimore man who claimed that he was abused by Melville in the early 1980s. Gerry promised to pursue the matter. In an internal memo, a Maine church official wrote that concerns had been raised about Melville's conduct before the Maryland man's letter.

"There could be liability and at least scandal if these concerns were presented," wrote Monsignor Joseph Ford.

In June 1990, Melville went to a Minnesota treatment facility. He later returned to serve in churches in Lewiston and Machias before leaving the active priesthood in 1997.