PORTLAND — Under normal circumstances, the statute of limitations for Christine Angell to sue her former parish priest claiming sexual abuse in the early 1970s would have expired in November 1985.

But her lawyer, Keith Varner, argued before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Tuesday that hers is not a typical case. He said the clock stopped in Angell’s case when the priest, Renald Hallee, left Maine and established residence outside the state.

Angell’s lawsuit against Hallee in Cumberland County Superior Court was dismissed in September 2010. Angell, now 49 and living in Portland, is asking the Supreme Court to allow the lawsuit to proceed and permit her to conduct discovery related to Hallee’s whereabouts after he left St. John’s Parish in Bangor.

Hallee, who now lives in Middlesex County, Mass., denies the abuse allegations, said his lawyer, Russell Pierce Jr.

Hallee left the ministry voluntarily in 1977 and made the first of several requests to be laicized – formally turned from a priest to a lay person – the next year, according to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland. The Vatican granted the most recent request, in May 2009.

Varner argued Tuesday that a statute that took effect in 2000 should apply to Angell’s case. The law removed the statute of limitations for civil cases involving sexual abuse of minors, but it isn’t retroactive to the time when Angell was a young girl.

In her case, the usual deadline would have been when she was 24 years old – six years after she was no longer a minor.

Another state law, Varner noted, stops the statute of limitations from running – “tolls” it – while the accused is living outside the state after the alleged acts.

Varner said he believes that Hallee left Maine in the late 1970s but doesn’t have specific information. He said Angell was unable to find Hallee for decades. Pierce said it doesn’t appear she tried to find him before 1985.

“So you are in a difficult position here today,” Chief Justice Leigh Saufley told Varner. “You are arguing that the statue of limitations has been tolled and yet there are insufficient facts in the record from which we can review the facts that would support that tolling.”

Justice Donald Alexander said there are constitutional issues with the notion that someone who left Maine without ever returning could forever be subject to a lawsuit.

“This cause of action basically arose between 38 and 40 years ago,” he said. “Don’t you have some burden to have some demonstration of why you’re so late in bringing it forward? Isn’t there a due process problem with saying you can basically sue any time you feel like it?”

Pierce contends that, for the statute of limitations to be suspended, Hallee had to be in a position where he was not answerable to a Maine court. He said Hallee was subject to its jurisdiction even after he moved out of Maine.

Pierce also said there would be a problem with extending the benefits of Maine’s statute of limitation only to residents.

“That creates discrimination between residents and non-residents who are similarly situated,” he said.

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at: [email protected]