A Maine judge will forward a question at the center of more than a dozen lawsuits against Maine’s Catholic church to the state’s highest court, where justices will decide whether a new law allowing people to sue for previously expired claims of childhood sexual abuse is constitutional.

Superior Court Justice Thomas McKeon said Wednesday that high court involvement was inevitable – even if he decided against it, the cases would eventually be appealed following a verdict.

“This issue is going to have to be faced,” said McKeon.

While his ruling Wednesday applied only to 13 complaints filed against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, the diocese’s attorney, Gerald Petruccelli, told McKeon that he is now aware of 80 open cases against the church.

Plaintiffs began filing civil complaints in state court after a new law took effect in 2021 allowing anyone with a previously expired claim of abuse to sue. Maine had indefinitely extended its statute of limitations for victims of childhood sexual abuse in 2000, but lawmakers didn’t do anything at the time to address people whose claims had already expired by 1987. The new cases filed against the diocese stretch as far back as the 1950s.

The diocese has argued that the new law is unconstitutional and that these claims should only be applied to the priests and other diocesan employees who committed the abuse, many of whom are now dead. Petruccelli has stated the new law opens up the church and other potential defendants to tens of millions of dollars in damages, putting them at a disadvantage in the courts because most evidence and witnesses will be hard, if not impossible, to access because of the amount of time that has passed.


“There is substantial public interest in decision of these issues in these cases,” Petruccelli stated in his March 3 request to McKeon for the supreme court’s involvement. “Not only will the Law Court’s decision determine the retroactivity of this enactment in many cases, but it will also be important controlling precedent in future disputes about the retroactivity of future laws.”

If the Maine Supreme Judicial Court rules the law is unconstitutional, other aspects of the claims could still move forward because they include allegations that the diocese participated in “fraudulent concealment,” which is not subject to a statute of limitations.

Michael Bigos, the attorney leading the cases against the diocese, argued that while the new law is what prompted his clients to come forward, they’re alleging more than just sexual abuse by specific diocese employees. Each claim alleges that the diocese was aware of credible allegations of abuse against priests and other employees, and instead of addressing the abuse, it relocated the clergy to different parishes and never warned parishioners.

In a motion filed in late March, Bigos wrote that pausing the cases in their entirety to answer one question hinders his ability to prove his clients’ claims of fraudulent concealment through the civil discovery process, during which the diocese must hand over all related evidence. Bigos told McKeon on Wednesday that he wants to ensure the cases will proceed, regardless of the supreme court’s decision.

“Do discovery now or do discovery later, but do discovery,” Bigos said.

McKeon said he will issue the ruling in writing later this week.

Once the case is with the supreme court, the Maine Office of the Attorney General could step in and defend the law. A spokesperson for the office did not return an email Wednesday afternoon asking if it plans to join the case – the office said in January that it would evaluate the case at that point.

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