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Six more people have sued the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, alleging that seven clergy abused them at sites around the state between 1954 and 1988 when they were from about 4 to 14 years old.
Glen Witham, one of the people who filed suit Monday in Cumberland County Superior Court, claims he was 14 years old when the Rev. John E. Harris first sexually abused him in 1984, which continued until 1987. Witham got to know Harris at the St. Athanasius and St. John Church in Rumford, which was across the street from the Rumford Boys Home where he lived. He came under custody of the state in 1980.
The diocese removed Harris from ministry in 1999 and sent him to a treatment program in Maryland. He was again removed in 2003 following allegations of child sexual abuse in the 1980s, according to the lawsuit. It also states that he fled to Canada, where he still lives.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican permanently dismissed Harris in 2015.
The new lawsuits, from five men and one woman, are the latest allegations made possible by a 2021 change in state law that lifted a statute of limitations on such claims. Previously, state law effectively prevented people who were abused as children before the late 1980s from suing their abusers and the organizations for which they worked.
This brings the total number of cases by Berman & Simmons, the law firm representing the plaintiffs, against the diocese to 30, with more expected to be filed in the coming months. Other law firms have also filed abuse cases against clergy in Maine.
The Bangor Daily News does not identify victims of sexual abuse unless they agree to be named. Witham, 52, of Augusta and Robert Rossignol, 67, agreed to be identified and spoke during a news conference in Portland on Monday morning.
Witham, who wiped tears from his eyes during the conference, liked cars as a teenager, he said. Harris invited him to check out his Pontiac Trans-Am, after which he began isolating and abusing him, according to the lawsuit.
When Witham’s mother died in 1987, he sought grief counseling at St. Athanasius and St. John Church, during which Harris abused him.
Rossignol, who now lives in Apollo Beach, Florida, was a 12-year-old altar boy at St. Catherine Church in the Aroostook County town of Washburn from 1968 to 1969. That’s when the Rev. John L. Audibert abused him, and the first time was after mass as Rossignol was tidying up, according to his complaint. The alleged abuse lasted for about a year.
Rossignol never told his parents, who were devout Catholics, about the abuse, he said Monday. After the change in state law in 2021 and his mother’s death about three years ago, he felt like he could come forward, he said.
Rossignol once had a conversation with his mother about the sexual abuse allegations coming out against many Catholic priests and clergy members. As much as he tried to open her eyes, she still remained under the impression that priests operate under a higher power, he said.
“It just needs to change,” he said. “I will never step foot in a Catholic church again.”
Audibert was removed from ministry in 1994 and sent to a rehabilitation program following allegations that he sexually abused a child, who was not Rossignol, in Caribou in the 1970s. He was reinstated a year later, according to the lawsuit.
In 2002, he publicly admitted to sexually abusing a minor during his assignment to Holy Cross Parish and Church in Lewiston during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the lawsuit said.
Audibert was removed from ministry at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Madawaska in 2002.
The six lawsuits allege abuse at churches and diocesan schools over the course of three decades. Some of the plaintiffs reside in Maine, while others live outside the state.
Perpetrators range from those at high levels within the diocese down to nuns at various schools, said Timothy Kenlan, who along with Michael Bigos represents the plaintiffs.
Kenlan hopes that the courage of the six plaintiffs inspires other victims of childhood sexual abuse to come forward because it’s the first step toward healing and living a full life, he said. The attorney also experienced childhood sexual abuse, which he shares with his clients, he said.
It often takes victims years to share their story of abuse because of fears about the public’s perception, not being believed and retribution, among other reasons, he said.
“None of what happened to you was your fault,” he said, adding that he is proud of Witham, Rossignol and the others.
The diocese did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.
BDN reporter Judy Harrison contributed to this story.