BANGOR, Maine — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Thursday unanimously upheld a lower court decision that concluded the statute of limitations bars a Portland woman from suing a former Catholic priest over alleged sexual abuse.
Christine S. Angell, 52, of Portland sued Renald C. Hallee, 69, of Billerica, Massachusetts, and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland in March 2010 in Cumberland County Superior Court. She alleged that between 1970 and 1973, when he was assigned to St. John Catholic Church in Bangor, Hallee abused her.
The claims against the diocese have been settled, according to court documents.
Hallee, who left the priesthood and Maine in 1977, has denied the allegations. He worked as a teacher in Lexington, Massachusetts, from 1978 until his retirement in January 2007, according to court documents. He married in 1983 and has lived in the same home since 1985.
Under Maine law in effect when the abuse allegedly took place, Angell had two years from the time she turned 18 in November 1981 to file the lawsuit, unless Hallee had moved out of state and was not available to be served with the complaint.
“We conclude on this record that, although she did not attempt to do so, Angell could have obtained information about Hallee’s whereabouts through reasonable effort,” Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley wrote for the court in her 14-page opinion. “Even though Angell did not know Hallee’s full name, she knew where and when he had been a priest.
“We are not persuaded by Angell’s argument that, had she tried to locate Hallee, the diocese would not have cooperated with her,” she continued. “Even if the diocese had not been cooperative initially, Angell could have filed her claims against the diocese and Hallee within the two-year limitation period following her eighteenth birthday and, through discovery, obtained information about Hallee’s location for purposes of serving him with [the lawsuit].”
Hallee’s attorney, Russell Pierce of Portland, praised the court’s decision Thursday in an email. He also said that the “allegations were seriously contested and denied.”
“This is the right result, because it tells us that regardless of whether a defendant resides in Maine or elsewhere, the defendant will have equal, fair treatment by the laws of Maine that govern how much time a person has to formally start a lawsuit,” Pierce said.
Angell’s attorneys, James T. Lawley and Sumner H. Lipman of Augusta, issued a statement Thursday in response to the decision.
“Obviously, Christine and her family are extremely disappointed,” it said. “We always know when we take on these cases it is an uphill battle, and Christine knew she would not receive much, if any, monetary compensation for damages by bringing the case to court. She did, however, hope that her abuser would face a jury. Unfortunately, this is a statute of limitations case where the wrongdoer is able to avoid a trial simply because the abuse happened a long time ago.”
Justices heard oral arguments in the case April 9 in Portland for a second time. In 2012, Maine’s high court ruled that the two-year statute of limitations applied but returned the case to the lower court to determine whether Hallee had lived out of state since 1977.
Last year, Superior Court Justice Roland Cole found that prior to the advent of widespread public Internet access, Angell could not have located him, however, the judge determined that she could have located Hallee through the diocese. Cole granted Hallee’s summary judgment motion.
Angell disagreed and appealed to the Law Court again.