Delayed justice: 3 states remove all time limits on child sex abuse lawsuits
Survivors of child sexual abuse in three states are praising opportunities to seek long-delayed justice after lawmakers removed the statute of limitations for such crimes. (9 June 2023) (AP Video: Rodrique Ngowi/Robert Bukaty)
PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Ann Allen loved going to church and the after-school social group led by a dynamic priest back in the 1960s.
The giggling fun with friends always ended with a game of hide and seek. Each week, the Rev. Lawrence Sabatino chose one girl to hide with him. Allen said when it was her turn, she was sexually assaulted, at age 7, in the recesses of St. Peter’s Catholic Church.
“I don’t remember how I got out of that cellar and I don’t think I ever will. But I remember it like it’s yesterday. I remember the smells. The sounds. I remember what he said, and what he did,” she said.
Allen, 64, is one of more than two dozen people who have sued the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, Maine, over the past year, seeking delayed justice since lawmakers allowed lawsuits for abuse that happened long ago and can’t be pursued in criminal courts either because of time limits or evidence diminishing over time.
More survivors are pursuing cases as states increasingly consider repealing time limits for child sex crime lawsuits. Vermont was the first state to remove the limits in 2019, followed by Maine in 2021 and Maryland this year.
Michigan, Rhode Island and Massachusetts are poised to take action before their legislative sessions end.
“The momentum is irreversible,” said Marci Hamilton, CEO of CHILD USA, a think tank aiming to prevent child abuse and neglect.
In April, Maryland lifted time limits on child sexual abuse lawsuits against institutions less than a week after the attorney general detailed decades of abuse of more than 600 children by over 150 priests associated with the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
Other states, meanwhile, have briefly removed the statute of limitations on lawsuits for childhood abuse. More than 10,000 lawsuits were filed when New York set aside time limits for two years.
Across the country, those lawsuits have targeted churches, summer camps, scout groups and other institutions accused of enabling pedophiles or turning a blind eye to wrongdoing.
More states eliminating the limits would help achieve justice and prevention, according to advocates who say survivors tend to keep the trauma to themselves, backed by new research suggesting survivors typically come forward in their 50s.
“More and more people come forward as they realize that they’re not alone,” said Michael Bigos, one of Allen’s attorneys, whose law firm has brought 25 lawsuits since last June and is evaluating more than 100 additional potential cases, including about 65 targeting the Portland diocese.
In his law offices, Allen looked at a photo of herself at her first communion at St. Peter’s, which serves what was once Portland’s Little Italy neighborhood and hosts a popular street party each summer.
The photo was taken after the assault. Her joy and exuberance are gone. “When I look at it, I see a pretty damaged child,” she said.
Sabatino quickly became part of the fabric of St. Peter’s when he arrived in 1958 after leaving another church where parents reported to police that he had sexually abused their 6-year-old daughter. The priest was warned by the Diocese of Portland not to engage with children or play games, but was soon doing both.
Parishioners, including Ann Allen’s family, invited him into their homes. He visited her family’s beach house.
Allen thought she was lucky when she was selected to hide with him. But the abuse became a dark secret she carried for decades.
She never considered telling her parents. Allen said she didn’t think anyone would believe her.
As a school principal in California, Allen was protective of children, especially those who reported abuse. She would try to help them and say the right things — things she wished had been done for her. Then, she went home to “curl up in a ball,” she said.
But her secret came bubbling back when she returned to Maine and had to confront her past, she said.
Robert Dupuis tells a similar story.
He was 12 years old in 1961 when he was abused by the Rev. John Curran in Old Town, a riverside city in Maine. Decades later, he sought help from Alcoholic’s Anonymous when his marriage was in jeopardy. He acknowledged the abuse in group therapy, at around age 55, and the revelation changed his life.
“It healed me and it freed me from holding back,” the 74-year-old said.
His marriage and friendships have improved, he said. Now, he encourages others who have been abused to come forward.
Most of Maine’s newly filed civil lawsuits target the Diocese of Portland, accusing leaders of ignoring accusations against priests like Sabatino and Curran, or simply moving them to new parishes, allowing the abuse to continue.
Diocese officials concluded that allegations against Sabatino and Curran were credible. Both have long since died.
Maine removed its time limits in 2000 to sue over childhood sexual abuse, but not retroactively, leaving survivors without recourse for older cases. Changes in 2021 allowed previously expired civil claims. The Legislature also is considering easing the statute of limitations on criminal charges for sexual assaults of children.
The Portland diocese contends survivors had ample time to sue and it’s unconstitutional to open the door to new litigation, which could lead to requests for damages of “tens of millions of dollars.”
A judge rejected the arguments. The diocese has appealed to the state supreme court. An attorney and a spokesperson for the diocese both declined comment.
For Patricia Butkowski, it was 1958 when her family alerted police that she said Sabatino assaulted her at a parish in Lewiston. After the diocese transferred him to Portland, Allen and others became victims.
“I’m now at 70 feeling emotions and allowing myself to feel emotions that I never knew I had. Anger is at the top of it. I’m like a volcano spewing and there’s just so many emotions, and anger at the church,” she said.
Butkowski, who now lives in Oklahoma City, wants the church to apologize and acknowledge the wrongs done to her and others so she can “hopefully regain some sort of faith before I die,” she said.
“What was done to me by the priest damaged my soul,” she said. “I don’t have a soul anymore. It’s broken.”
Follow David Sharp on Twitter @David_Sharp_AP.