Kurt Francis, 55, of Indian Island, is one of four members of the Penobscot Nation who have filed complaints against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland detailing sexual abuse they say they experienced as children at the hands of three priests. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The Panawamské Parish was one of the oldest in New England. Established by French Catholic missionaries on the ancestral homeland of the Penobscot Nation in Maine, it predated the state diocese by more than 180 years. Built in the 1800s, St. Ann Church stands over the sky-blue rush of the Penobscot River. Stained glass windows gleam from its wood-paneled walls, and a small brick chimney peeks out from the roof.

It was at St. Ann that four men say they were abused as boys in the 1970s and 1980s by priests employed by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland.

Their experiences, outlined in civil complaints filed against the diocese in Penobscot County Superior Court on Thursday, are similar. All three of their alleged perpetrators were only at St. Ann for a few years, one of several assignments in their long careers. Credible allegations of abuse by these priests surfaced decades later, and two priests were removed from the ministry in the 2000s, decades after the damage was done.

St. Ann changed over the years. Priests came and left. The rectory beside the church was transformed into the Penobscot Nation Tribal Court. The church now offers mass on Saturday evenings, since the diocese merged the Panawamské Parish with others to form the present-day Parish of the Resurrection of the Lord.

The men, however, never shook the memories of their abuse. Kurt Francis said he spent decades in silence and isolation, knowing there were others but not sure what to do about it.

Four new lawsuits against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland allege they were sexually abused throughout the 1970s and 1980s while they were altar boys and employees at St. Ann Church on the Indian Island reservation.  Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Then Francis heard about a law that took effect in 2021 that allows anyone whose claim of childhood sexual abuse had expired under the state’s previous statute of limitations to sue, regardless of when the abuse occurred.


The claims filed Thursday come a week after a Maine judge agreed to ask the state’s highest court to consider the constitutionality of this law, which the diocese argues violates its right to due process. The diocese’s attorney, Gerald Petruccelli, told the judge that he is aware of 80 open cases against the church in Maine.


The four men are likely the first members of the Penobscot Nation to sue the diocese for childhood sexual abuse.

Their attorney, Michael Bigos, is now representing more than two dozen people with claims against the diocese.

Attorney Michael Bigos, center, at a news conference with clients Sheldon Snell, 52, left, and Kurt Francis, 55, both of Indian Island and members of the Penobscot Nation, who filed complaints against the Catholic Diocese of Portland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Speaking from his law office in Bangor on Thursday, he referenced an apology that Pope Francis made in a visit to Quebec last summer that acknowledged abuse against Indigenous children at church-run residential schools in Canada.

“Let these four plaintiffs who are filing today … let them be a symbol of the worst of the cover-up, and the secrecy, and the enabling of the abuse,” Bigos said after reading an acknowledgment recognizing tribal nations’ rightful place as stewards of their lands.


Francis said that, by suing the diocese, he is seeking his own acknowledgment from the church, accepting responsibility for the abuse.

Francis and another man, who is suing under the name John Doe, say they were about 10 years old when they were abused by the Rev. David Paul Cote in 1978. The priest would regularly invite altar boys to the rectory for sleepovers where he offered them pizza, movies and “special treats otherwise rarely available to the boys, like Kool-Aid,” according to complaints.

Then, one by one, the men said, he would take them into a separate room and abuse them.

Cote retired in 2014, after working at nine parishes in Maine during his 45-year career with the church.

Dale Mitchell, who was not at the news conference Thursday, said in his complaint that he was 12 when he was abused by the Rev. Marcel Robitaille in 1972. He was an altar boy at the church and alleges the priest would frequently isolate him and then sexually abuse him in the church rectory.

According to the complaint, the diocese sent Robitaille to a counseling program in Michigan in 1989 after several family members said he had sexually abused them for more than 20 years. The diocese returned Robitaille to the ministry, placing him at churches in Dexter and Belfast, after saying it had received no allegations from parishioners. He was disciplined by the Vatican in 2008, which assigned him to a life of prayer and penance. The Vatican barred him from administering sacraments, presenting himself as a priest and required him to get pre-approval from the bishop any time he wanted to travel beyond his daily routine.


Sheldon Snell said he was a 16-year-old groundskeeper for the parish in 1987 when the Rev. Leo James Michaud invited him inside the church and abused him. He said he was seriously injured and needed medical attention.

Bishop Joseph Gerry removed Michaud from the ministry in 2002 for other credible allegations of abuse from the 1970s. Snell said Thursday that he reported the priest to the diocese around 2008.


The diocese is challenging the constitutionality of the new law that made these complaints possible. Last week, Superior Justice Thomas McKeon accepted the church’s request to have the Maine Supreme Judicial Court weigh in on the issue. All of Bigos’ cases remain on hold until the question is resolved.

Sheldon Snell, 52, said he was sexually abused when he was a 16-year-old groundskeeper at St. Ann Parish in 1987, which caused serious physical injuries that required medical treatment. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

But Bigos has said that even if the court rules against the 2021 law, the complaints would still be able to proceed to trial because they also allege the diocese committed “fraudulent concealment.” In each case filed so far, attorneys have argued that church officials knew there were credible allegations of abuse, but relocated the clergy to different parishes instead of addressing it – and never warned parishioners.

A spokesperson for the diocese did not respond to a request to discuss the newest allegations or the diocese’s legal arguments.


The Office of the Maine Attorney General could step forward to defend the constitutionality of the new law, but a spokesperson said she could not comment on whether it had plans to do so.

Bigos said Thursday that he has formally asked the attorney general’s office to investigate the diocese as Maryland’s attorney general did, publishing a report on the Archdiocese of Baltimore this month.

Danna Hayes, the spokesperson for the AG’s office, confirmed the office received the request, but would not comment further.

The attorney general investigated the Portland diocese in 2002 and published its findings in 2005 following a lawsuit by the Portland Press Herald. The report offered a brief history of abuse by more than 60 employees, including priests, laymen and church employees – most of whom were not named.

No criminal charges were filed, either because there was deemed to be insufficient evidence to prosecute or because the statute of limitations had run out. The report stated that the diocese wasn’t criminally liable for any of the alleged abuse because the church wasn’t legally required to report allegations until 1997.

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