Benjamin R. Gideon, trial lawyer and partner at Berman & Simmons

Victims of the abuse are fighting back

Just last week, an independent audit of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland revealed 11 new complaints of priest abuse against children — which occurred between 30 and 70 years ago — by four priests. Six of the complaints have been substantiated.

A couple of weeks ago, the Irish government reported that its investigation into the Irish Roman Catholic Church revealed widespread child abuse — rape, molestation and mental cruelty — and a deliberate cover-up on the part of church leadership.

Victims of the abuse are fighting back.

In May 2008, a Vermont jury awarded $8.7 million to a man who as a child was sexually abused by a Vermont Catholic priest. Dozens of other cases are pending in Vermont.

One order of nuns in Ireland has offered to pay $193.5 million to compensate the victims of abuse in Catholic schools and orphanages.

In Maine, victims of child abuse by Catholic priests are still waiting for meaningful relief.

It cannot now be seriously disputed that there was widespread child abuse by numerous priests in Maine, and that Maine's Catholic Church — like those elsewhere — covered up, abetted and perpetuated these crimes. Yet Maine's victims have yet to receive relief through the courts.

That may change soon. Several victims of child abuse have filed lawsuits in Maine, and more will surely follow.

To date, these lawsuits have proceeded slowly. Rather than accepting responsibility, Maine's Catholic Church has chosen to invoke a myriad of legal defenses.

In a recent case, for example, the Church insisted that it should be entirely immune from all claims by child abuse victims, based upon "charitable immunity." On appeal, Maine's Supreme Judicial Court observed, however, that the doctrine of "charitable immunity" has been widely discredited, and, as a consequence, has been abrogated by the courts of virtually every other state. (Charities, as it turns out, can insure against risk by purchasing insurance just like any other entity.)

Perhaps most disingenuous is the notion that the Catholic Church is a true "charitable" organization at all. As we saw in the last election cycle, the Church routinely engages in non-charitable political fundraising. (It is not clear to what category of "charity" the concealment and perpetuation of child abuse belongs.)

Fortunately for victims, Maine's Supreme Court has rejected the Church's attempt to evade responsibility. Rather, the court has held that victims of child abuse may pursue claims for monetary damages against the Church — at least in those cases where there is evidence that the Church played a role in concealing the abusive practices.

Now, it is time for Maine's Catholic Church to stand trial, and for a Maine jury to send a message with its verdict — like the message of the Vermont jury — that the leadership of the Catholic Church must be accountable for its shocking indifference to the innocent children whose lives were destroyed by its failure to protect them from known abusers.

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