Sex-Abuse Bill Would Expand Victims' Ability for Civil Suits

By Ann S. Kim
Portland Press-Herald [Maine]
February 13, 2007

Augusta - A bill supported by advocates for the clergy's sexual-abuse victims would open the door to civil lawsuits by those whose molestation took place before the statute of limitations was lifted.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Ethan Strimling, D-Portland, would create a two-year window for people to file lawsuits over the sexual abuse of minors. The measure would have no effect on the criminal statute of limitations.

"For those who need this opportunity, we need to provide it to them. And for those who commit these crimes, we need to hold them accountable," Strimling said.

A public hearing on the bill, "An Act Regarding the Reporting of Sexual Abuse," will be held today. The Judiciary Committee hearing is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. in Room 438 of the State House.

In 1999, the Legislature removed the statute of limitations for child sexual-abuse cases that took place in 1993 or later, said Paul Kendrick, co-founder of the Ignatius Group, one of the organizations in the Coalition to Reform Sex Abuse Laws. But the 1999 law doesn't help those abused before 1993, he said. Many people who suffer sexual abuse as a child don't talk about it until they are in a safer phase of their lives, usually middle age, he said.

"It's as if we've filled the stadium with victims who are in their 30s, 40s and 50s. They're all ready to testify," he said, "but they're barred from filing a lawsuit right now."

The bill would apply to all cases of child sexual abuse, not just those involving clergy.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland had not taken a position on the bill as of late Monday afternoon, said Marc Mutty, the diocesan director of public affairs.

In most cases, plaintiffs would be able to sue the perpetrators. A decision by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court in 1997 makes it difficult for plaintiffs to hold religious institutions responsible for the actions of clergy. The court found supervision of clergy is exempt from legal scrutiny under the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of religious freedom.

Michael Sweatt, 49, would be able to file a lawsuit if the legislation is passed. Sweatt, of Portland, is one of the victims who never spoke about being abused until he reached middle age -- when he was moved to action by fears for his son.

In 1997, Sweatt told Cheverus High School officials that he had been molested by longtime faculty member Charles Malia. Sweatt had not known Malia was still at Cheverus until he enrolled his son at the school and saw Malia's name on his schedule.

Malia resigned from Cheverus in 1998. In an interview with the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram in 2000, Malia admitted sexual misconduct with students.

Sweatt, of Portland, now leads Voice of the Faithful, one of the groups in the coalition supporting Strimling's bill. He said the bill would allow victims to alert others about an abuser through the court system, particularly when institutions aren't forthcoming about allegations of abuse.

"This empowers the victim and the survivor to not have to rely on the institution," he said.

It's not clear how many lawsuits could result if the bill becomes law, but survivors such as Harvey Paul of Windham are certain that others suffered at the hands of their abusers.

"There are a lot more people like me out there. I know there are at least eight others," said Paul, director of the Maine chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, another group in the coalition.

Paul, 52, said he was molested while a student at St. Mary's School in Biddeford. He said that because he received a settlement from the Diocese of Portland, he would not be eligible to file a lawsuit if the Legislature approves the two-year window.

Although the bill wouldn't affect his case, Paul supports it because he believes it can help others. "My mission won't be done until I can do everything I can possibly do to prevent this from happening to another child," he said.

Strimling's bill is based on a 2002 California law that provided a one-year window for civil lawsuits.

About a dozen states have considered similar bills, but no other state has passed one yet, said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

State Sen. David Hastings III, R-Fryeburg, a Judiciary Committee member, says he has general concerns about the two-year window for lawsuits but was sympathetic to the plight of victims seeking redress.

"Unless we come up with some really solid reasons why it's not a good idea, I'm going to have sympathy for them," he said. "But you've got to be careful. We can't do this every two years."

Strimling said his bill strikes a balance between providing a chance for closure for victims and allowing lawsuits to be filed indefinitely.

"We basically open the gates for two years. We open the gate and then we're done," he said.

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 623-1031 or at:


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