Mar. 3—The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland is asking Maine’s highest court to consider its challenge to the constitutionality of a 2021 law that lifts the statute of limitations on claims of childhood sexual abuse.
The diocese’s attorney, Gerald Petruccelli, submitted the request Thursday, asking a superior court judge to send the challenge to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. He said the case would have an impact far beyond the outcome of the 70 open cases currently pending against the church.
“There is substantial public interest in the decision of these issues in these cases,” Petruccelli wrote. “Not only will the Law Court’s decision determine the retroactivity of this enactment in many cases, but it will also be important controlling precedent in future disputes about the retroactivity of future laws.”
Lawmakers agreed in 2021 to remove all remaining time barriers on claims of sexual abuse against children.
So far, the change has prompted more than a dozen people to sue the diocese, with claims stretching as far back as the 1950s. Hundreds of other people with claims of abuse involving the church and other organizations or individuals have contacted attorneys. Many have already resulted in private settlements, but some lawyers have said they are waiting for the courts to rule on the constitutionality question before filing formal complaints.
The diocese filed a challenge in November, saying that lawmakers had no right to remove the statute of limitations, arguing it is unconstitutional because it creates new liability and exposes the church to “tens of millions of dollars” in potential claims.
Cumberland County Superior Justice Thomas McKeon ruled this month that the law was constitutional and gave the diocese 21 days to file a request asking him to refer the case to the high court.
If McKeon approves the request, the case would move directly to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, which sits as the Law Court when it hears appeals. If he denies it, the diocese would still have a chance to appeal his ruling directly. There is no time limit for when McKeon could make his decision.
“The court agrees that these questions are important, given the number of related cases already docketed,” McKeon wrote in his previous ruling, with “a large number of new cases anticipated.”
Attorney Michael Bigos, who is representing the 13 people suing the diocese and defended the constitutionality of the 2021 law during a hearing in January, did not respond to a message left Friday with his firm’s spokesperson seeking his reaction to Petruccelli’s motion.
Until the constitutionality question is resolved, McKeon has paused the discovery process.
In a previous interview with the Press Herald, Bigos said he hopes the process will compel the diocese to release reports that some survivors and their families remember making to the church, but that did not appear in an investigative report by the Office of the Maine Attorney General that was made public in 2005 following a lawsuit by the Portland Press Herald.
The document offered a brief history of abuse at the hands of more than 60 employees, including priests, laymen and church employees — most of whom the report did not name. No criminal charges were filed, either because there was deemed to be insufficient evidence to prosecute or because the statute of limitations had run out.
The report also stated that the diocese was not criminally liable for any of the alleged abuse because in Maine the church was not legally required to report allegations until 1997.
The 13 lawsuits are targeted towards the diocese — rather than the individual priests — because the plaintiffs argue the priests were known abusers that the church moved throughout the diocese, rather than removing them from ministry and notifying parishioners.
Robert Dupuis has alleged he was 12 years old when he was abused by the Rev. John Curran in 1961. The parish later moved Curran to a church in Augusta, where several others allege he abused them, according to other civil complaints filed against the diocese.
Ann Allen of Scarborough said she was abused by the Rev. Lawrence Sabatino when she was 6 years old while attending a sodality meeting at St. Peter Parish in Portland. According to her complaint, Sabatino was moved to Allen’s parish after church leaders were alerted that he was accused of abusing another young girl in Lewiston in 1958.
A man filed another complaint against the diocese late last year, alleging abuse by Sister Mary Geraldine Walsh in the 1960s when he was a second grader at St. John Parochial School in Bangor.
Bigos and other attorneys suing the diocese say they’re hoping the mounting legal pressure will force the church to take responsibility for enabling the abuse of minors and release information on credibly accused priests.