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Four members of the Penobscot Nation have sued the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland and Bishop Robert Deeley claiming they were sexually abused when they were children by three priests assigned to St. Ann Catholic Church on Indian Island.
They are the first lawsuits filed by Native Americans against the diocese since the statute was lifted that allowed decades-old abuse claims to go forward.
The priests named in the complaints are Marcel L. Robitaille, David Paul Cote and Leo James Michaud.
Robitaille, who was removed from ministry in 1993 after relatives accused him of sexual abuse, is dead, according to Michael Bigos, the Lewiston attorney handling the men’s cases. The Vatican in 2008 assigned Robitaille a life of penitence and prayer in 2008 when he was 70.
Michaud, then 51, was removed from ministry in 2002 after he was accused of abusing a teenage boy 25 years earlier while he was a seminarian working at the Christian Life Center in Caribou.
Cote retired in 2013 at age 70.
Cote and Michaud, who are believed to be still living in Maine, were not sued individually. The lawsuits claim that the diocese and its bishops knew or should have known the priests had sexually abused children and removed them from ministry sooner.
Three of the plaintiffs, Kurt D. Francis, 55, and Sheldon L. Snell, 52, both of Indian Island, and Dale N. Mitchell Sr., 62, of Orono agreed to be named publicly. The other man asked to remain anonymous.
The Bangor Daily News does not identify victims of sexual abuse unless they agree to be named.
Sheldon and Francis participated in a press conference at their attorneys’ Bangor offices on Thursday. Sheldon did not answer media questions and quickly left as soon as it ended.
Francis said Thursday that he learned from an article in the BDN last year that the statute of limitations had been lifted. As he read the news story, members of the abuse came flooding back to him, Francis said.
“It was hard to read,” he said. “Everything came back to me and I felt a ton of weight on me. I talked to [Bigos] and that weight just lifted off of me.”
Francis said he also talked to his childhood friends and realized he was not the only victim, which he had not understood before speaking with lawyers.
“I know there are more victims on Indian Island,” he said. “I hope they will come forward and not be too ashamed to do that.”
Three of the victims were allegedly sexually abused between 1972 and 1979 when the men were between 7 and 12 years old, according to Bigos. In the fourth case, the abuse allegedly took place in 1987, when the victim was 16 years old.
Mitchell claims he was abused by Robitaille in the St. Ann’s rectory, located next to the church, in 1972 when he was 12. Francis and the man who wishes to remain anonymous allege that Cote sexually abused them in the late 1970s when they were 10 and 11, respectively.
Snell was 16 and working as a groundskeeper at the church in 1987 when Michaud allegedly sexually assaulted him, causing serious injuries.
While the cases were filed Thursday in Penobscot County Superior Court, they are expected to be consolidated with more than 20 other cases pending before the Business and Consumer Court in Portland that have been filed since June.
Dave Guthro, a spokesperson for the diocese, has declined to comment on the abuse lawsuits. Attorneys for the diocese have filed motions seeking to dismiss the complaints.
Superior Court Justice Thomas McKeon, the judge handling all of the cases filed against the diocese, last week asked the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to determine if the retroactive clause in the law is constitutional and whether it may be applied to organizations and institutions rather than individuals.
The lawsuits will not go to trial until those questions are answered, but more lawsuits are expected to be filed as other victims come forward.
Bigos also has asked Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey to seek information from the diocese about the handling of sexual abuse cases and a list of names of priests against whom credible reports of childhood sexual abuse have been made that would be made public. Former attorney Steven Rowe released a similar report in 2004 that outlined some of the most egregious cases.
The spokesperson for Frey’s office did not immediately return a request for comment on Bigos’ suggestion.
A change in Maine law passed in 2021 allowed people abused by clergy as children before the mid-1980s to sue. That has led to a flurry of lawsuits.
Indian Island is part of the ancestral homeland of the Penobscot Nation in Maine. Historically a part of the former Panawamské Parish, the church was established on the shores of the Penobscot River in 1668 by French-Catholic missionaries some 185 years before the establishment of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland in 1853.
Today, it is part of the Parish of the Resurrection of the Lord, which is made up of churches in Old Town, Orono, Bradley and Indian Island.