Sheldon Snell, 52, Kurt Francis, 55, is one of 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. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

A version of this article was originally published in The Daily Brief, our Maine politics newsletter. Sign up here for daily news and insight from politics editor Michael Shepherd.

When Maine lawmakers moved in 2021 to remove the statute of limitations on civil claims of child sexual abuse, it led to immediate effects.

In March, four Penobscot Nation men   sued Maine’s Catholic diocese alleging abuse at the hands of priests, bringing the number of active lawsuits like it to 15. They were prompted by that law two years ago, which was opposed by the diocese. A judge   rejected their argument that the law was unconstitutional, but lawsuits are effectively on hold until Maine’s high court rules on that issue.

Lawmakers are revisiting this subject in 2023, and they look poised to make another big move affecting criminal cases.

The change: Sen. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor,   is backing a bill that would further wipe out statutes of limitation in criminal and civil cases for offenses classified as sexual abuse or sexual exploitation of a minor. It got a unanimous vote in a legislative committee on Tuesday.

These add up to relatively minor tweaks under the letter of Maine’s already strong laws on the topic, but they could have big effects. The state already has no statute of limitations in criminal cases on the most serious sex crimes against children. This would expand the repeal to   all sex offenses in the state’s criminal code and to all victims under age 18, rather than just under 16.

What will happen: The practical effects of the 2021 change have not been fully realized with the court cases remaining on hold. It is also difficult to say what the criminal changes under Baldacci’s proposal would mean in effect, since prosecutors would need hard evidence to advance old cases that may be hard to prove.

This legislation is not dividing lawmakers as of yet, but it is dividing the legal community. The Maine Trial Lawyers Association   backed the idea in testimony from Michael Bigos, who is representing plaintiffs in lawsuits against the Catholic church. Defense attorneys   oppose it, saying the statutes of limitations are important legal tools. Prosecutors   support it.

What’s next: These kinds of changes have already led to significant liability for the Catholic church in cases dating back decades, and lawmakers look ready to extend the changes past that venue and into the criminal arena. It is one of the top legal areas to note in Maine going forward.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...