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A Maine Superior Court judge on Tuesday ruled the law that has allowed a flurry of lawsuits over decades-old child sexual abuse allegations is constitutional, according to the Business and Consumer Court in Portland, where they have been consolidated.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland had challenged the law lifting the statute of limitations by claiming it was unconstitutional, in part, because the rule was retroactive.
Maine removed its statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse cases in 2000, but that change wasn’t retroactive, so victims couldn’t sue for older crimes. Changes to state law in 2021 made it possible for people to seek legal action for older claims that previously had expired.
So far, at least 15 lawsuits have been filed in state and federal courts against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland alleging that it did not properly respond to reports of child sexual abuse by clergy and teachers and allowed abuse it knew about to continue.
Michael Bigos of Lewiston, the attorney whose firm has 13 of the lawsuits, on Tuesday praised the decision issued by Superior Court Justice Thomas McKeon, who is handling the cases in the Business and Consumer Court in Portland.
“In our lawsuits, we asked the court to simply affirm and apply the law, and we are grateful that they did so,” Bigos said. “Survivors have suffered a lifetime of pain that has affected their relationships at home, at work and in the world. Now survivors are empowered to face those who allowed such heinous abuse and hold them accountable.”
The diocese did not immediately respond to a request for comment but has said it would take the issue to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. McKeon said he would put the unresolved cases on hold while the question is pending before Maine’s high court. That would not prevent new lawsuits from being filed.
McKeon said in his ruling that whether a law can be applied retroactively or not has been “historically [a] legislative prerogative” and not assigned to the courts.
“Here, the purpose underlying [the law], as amended by the 130th Maine Legislature, reflects unique and evolved societal recognition of the nature of child sexual abuse and the headwinds against victims’ ability to bring their claim,” he said. “[The diocese] argues that the plaintiff’s line of cases is inapplicable, because it has vested and fundamental right to immunity arising from the expired statute of limitations.”
McKeon acknowledged that the arguments presented by both sides made for “a close case.”