A lawyer for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland told supreme court justices Thursday that Maine’s elimination of time limits on child sex abuse lawsuits is unconstitutional and imposes new liabilities, a reference to costly lawsuits that have driven some dioceses into bankruptcy.
But an attorney whose law firm represents about 100 plaintiffs characterized the law as the “will of the people” versus the diocese’s expectation of brushing past conduct under a rug.
“There’s never been a right to enabling child sex abuse. The diocese wants you to create a vested right in getting away with it,” attorney Michael Bigos told the court.
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The Supreme Judicial Court heard highly technical arguments at the Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor during a packed hearing that underscored the stakes of its ultimate decision.
Roman Catholic dioceses in Baltimore; Buffalo, New York; and elsewhere have filed for bankruptcy under the weight of lawsuits and settlements stemming from the clergy abuse scandal.
In Maine, dozens of new lawsuits have been filed since the state lifted the statute of limitations but those lawsuits are on hold pending the legal challenge of the law’s constitutionality.
Maine removed its time limits in 2000 to sue over childhood sexual abuse, but not retroactively, leaving survivors without recourse for older cases dating back decades.
Changes in 2021 allowed previously expired civil claims, opening the door to dozens of abuse survivors to come forward to sue. Bigos’ law firm, Berman & Simmons, represents about 100 survivors, many of whom already sued. Of those, 75 of the cases involve Roman Catholic entities, he said.
The Portland diocese contends survivors had ample time to sue and that it’s unconstitutional to open the door to new litigation, which it previously said could lead to requests for damages of “tens of millions of dollars.”
Gerald Petruccelli, an attorney for the Diocese of Portland, said Thursday that previous case law was laid forth in a 1981 decision concluded “the Legislature has no constitutional authority to enact legislation if its implementation impairs vested rights, or imposes liabilities that would result from conduct predating the legislation.”
At one point, Supreme Court Justice Andrew Mead suggested the legal exercise was “a little metaphysical” — getting some chuckles from spectators — before drawing an analogy of a “dormant cause of action” awaiting to be awakened by a change in law, generating the image of something in a mad scientist’s laboratory.
“It sounds like something from a horror movie, but it had been lying dormant for these years. And the Legislature with the turn of a statute can bring it back to life,” he said.
A state judge already upheld the the elimination of statute of limitations for child sexual abuse — but the judge halted lawsuits to allow the decision to be appealed.
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The diocese has argued that the elimination of the time limit takes away previously established rights, called “vested rights.”
But in February, Justice Thomas McKeon ruled that vested rights generally apply to property rights, not statutes of limitations, and that the law can apply to institutions as well as individuals. But the judge also wrote that it was a “close case” and that attorneys for the diocese had raised “serious” constitutional concerns.
The Diocese of Portland said after Thursday’s proceeding that its opposition to the law “in no way reflects a desire to minimize the devastating effects of past sexual abuse by church representatives.” But it said the law will “significantly impact the diocese’s ability to serve the Catholic community” if it stands.
“The diocese is committed to thoroughly investigating any report of abuse brought forth and to providing extensive support services to those who come forward with any allegation of abuse,” the diocese said.