– By SCOTT DOLAN
BANGOR – Attorneys in the case of an Augusta man who accused a priest of sexually abusing him as a child argued before Maine’s highest court Tuesday over whether the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland was obligated to disclose that the priest was later accused of abusing other children.
William Picher of Augusta accused Raymond Melville of molesting him while he was a student at St. Mary’s School, from September 1986 to June 1988, while Melville was serving his initial assignment as assistant pastor at St. Mary’s Parish in Augusta.
Picher, now 39, filed his complaint in 2007. He also accused the diocese of covering up knowledge of earlier abuse complaints against Melville that came to light after Picher was abused.
In 1990, a Maryland man wrote that he had been “emotionally, sexually and physically abused” as a teenager by Melville from 1980 to 1985, when Melville was a seminarian studying to be a priest in Baltimore.
In a separate case, Michael Fortin of Sidney claimed he was abused by Melville for seven years beginning in 1985, when Fortin was 13 and Melville was his parish priest in Augusta. Fortin was awarded $500,000 in damages against Melville and settled with the church for an undisclosed amount.
In that case, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled in 2005 that the protections of church leaders are limited when weighed against the welfare of children.
Picher’s case against the diocese never went to trial. In August, Justice Donald Marden granted summary judgment in favor of the diocese on Picher’s claim that the diocese never disclosed the other complaints against Melville.
Picher is now appealing Marden’s decision to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, arguing that the diocese had an obligation to report the 1990 accusations against Melville.
One of his attorneys, Sumner Lipman, said after Tuesday’s hearing that if the high court rules in Picher’s favor, the case could have a broad impact, opening the door for other victims of abuse to argue that the diocese is liable by not reporting accusations as they become known.
The diocese’s attorney, Gerald Petruccelli, argued in court that the diocese couldn’t have engaged in a cover-up in Picher’s case because it learned “too late” of other allegations, years after Picher was abused.
“The only material fact that could have made a difference here is the letter that arrived in 1990,” Petruccelli told the justices.
Picher’s case differs from other cases concerning sexual abuse by clergy members in Maine, such as those that followed the diocese’s disclosure in 2005 of the identities of eight deceased priests who had been accused of abusing children over decades.
Those victims have a public record that the diocese covered up abuse. In Picher’s case, “the diocese still has not announced that this priest was a pedophile,” Lipman said.
“I think the issues are really the amount of evidence necessary to put the diocese on notice before the abuse took place,” Lipman said. “When the diocese had absolute, direct knowledge that there was sexual abuse, they did absolutely nothing to notify the parents.”
Lipman said Picher was 12 when Melville began abusing him, and by the time the diocese became aware of the other abuse allegation against Melville, in 1990, Picher was only 16. At that point, Picher had not yet told his parents what had happened and had not received any therapy, Lipman said.
“Our position is, the harm continues to happen because he was not treated,” Lipman said.
The Supreme Judicial Court made no immediate ruling on the appeal and gave no indication of when it will rule.
Melville, now 71, defaulted after failing to respond to Picher’s 2007 court complaint and was ordered to pay Picher $4.2 million in damages.
Lipman said Picher has collected some of that money, but he would not say how much. Melville was last known to be living in North Carolina, he said.
The diocese has said that Melville was granted a leave of absence from active ministry in 1997 at his request.
Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at:
Twitter: @scottddolan NOTE TO READERS
BECAUSE OF TECHNICAL problems, this story did not run in its entirety Wednesday, so it is being reprinted today.