Sheldon Snell, 52, pictured on April 13, 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. Sitting at left is Pat Graffam, sexual assault advocate for Penobscot Nation. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

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If you or someone you know needs resources or support related to sexual violence, contact the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s 24/7 hotline at 800-871-7741.

Maine’s attorney general thinks a 2021 Maine law, which retroactively eliminated a statute of limitations on civil claims of child sex abuse, is constitutional. That question will ultimately be up to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to decide.  

A state judge previously upheld the law, while acknowledging it was a “close case” in his ruling. What should not be a close case, however, is recognizing the need to rebalance criminal justice and other systems to better support victims of abuse — particularly children.

The 2021 law, along with a more recent change that became law this year, is part of that critical recalibration. The Catholic Church, insurance providers and others opposed the 2021 change in part because they said it was unfair, burdensome on the court system and could lead to costly litigation. But those concerns didn’t make the change any less necessary. The fact that systems have helped to shield some powerful institutions and people from accountability in the past is not a reason to avoid reform now.

Are there legitimate considerations about the rights of the accused? Certainly. This is a complicated issue and there are competing rights to balance. But we keep returning to the same principle: There is no statute of limitations on the trauma caused by these types of crimes, nor should there be one that limits accountability for those who caused the trauma.

As experts and survivors have emphasized repeatedly in legislative testimony, there are many reasons why abuse victims, particularly children, might not quickly report their excruciating experiences.

“Developmentally, children do not have the emotional and cognitive skills to process such traumatic adverse childhood experiences. Cognitive skills, including thinking, learning, understanding, problem-solving, reasoning and remembering, in addition to the aforementioned feelings of guilt and shame, will often prevent a child from disclosing,” Rep. Lori Gramlich, who sponsored the 2021 law, told fellow lawmakers two years ago. “Even well into adulthood, these feelings will often prevent us from disclosing this.”

Gramlich also spoke movingly of her own experience as an abuse survivor.

“I cannot, nor would I presume to, speak for every survivor. I can only speak for myself. It has taken me many years as an adult to process the atrocities that my siblings and I endured growing up,” Gramlich said. “I knew that I could never change what happened to me, but I also knew that when I got to be a grown up, I would do my best to make things better for others – to hopefully prevent children from having to endure abuse.”

Melissa Martin of the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault also provided insight into how reporting can be delayed in these cases while testifying in support of a 2023 law that expands on previous efforts to remove statutes of limitations for claims of child sex abuse.

“Delayed reporting in sexual violence cases is extremely common for a variety of reasons, including fear of retaliation, fear of not being believed, self-blame about what happened, not having a support person, or not understanding what happened,” Martin said. “With minors, delayed reporting is the norm, not the exception. About 85 percent of survivors of childhood sexual harm delay reporting, or never report their abuse.”

It is the 2021 law, not the most recent 2023 update, currently being challenged before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. But the same fundamental principle should remain true across the board: The trauma caused by sexual abuse doesn’t automatically expire. Neither should the ability to hold people who commit these crimes accountable.

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Opinion Editor Susan Young, Deputy Opinion Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked for the BDN...