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The Maine law giving child sexual abuse victims years to file civil lawsuits is constitutional, contrary to the Catholic Church’s arguments, the attorney general said.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland is challenging a 2021 law that lifted the statute of limitations retroactively for children who were sexually abused. The church is arguing the law is unconstitutional.
It is a “commonsense proposition” that the Maine Constitution does not grant freedom of liability to people accused of sexual abuse of minors just because time has passed, Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey argued in a Friday filing with the Maine Supreme Court.
The state’s Catholic Diocese is facing at least 21 lawsuits alleging it knew about child sexual abuse by clergy and teachers and allowed it to continue. The lawsuits are paused but more are expected to be filed before the end of the year, according to Berman & Simmons Law Firm.
The church has argued Maine’s Constitution does not allow retroactive legislation that would infringe on rights, and that expired statutes of limitations can be viewed as property rights. A Maine superior court disagreed in February and the church appealed to the supreme court.
“To strike down [the law] would be to leave Maine as an island in a sea of states that have elected to expand child sex abuse survivors’ access to justice for worthy public policy reasons,” attorney Michael Bigos said in a Thursday filing.
The Maine Legislature got rid of limitations, in part because of the research that shows children may not report sexual abuse for years, the attorney general’s filing said. Delays happen for various reasons, including a feeling of shame, being unable to developmentally process the events or wanting to avoid reliving the emotional trauma.
“Ensuring that [victims] can seek redress for the harms they allege is far more important than the impact of eliminating the statute of limitations on potential defendants,” Frey’s filing said.
Statutes of limitations are not ironclad and can be changed. The expiration is not a vested right from the Maine Constitution, the attorney general’s filing said. The state of Maine eliminated the statute of limitations for civil claims for sexual abuse of minors in 2000, but the law was only prospective.
The state of Maine asked the supreme court to find that it is constitutional to retroactively eliminate the statute of limitations for civil claims about sexual acts against minors.
Oral arguments before Maine Supreme Judicial Court justices have not been scheduled.