PORTLAND (AP) – The plaintiff in Maine’s only active priest sexual abuse lawsuit has rejected a settlement offer from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, the diocese’s lawyer said Monday.

The move paves the way for a trial in the fall and a subsequent showdown with the diocese before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

Church officials attended a May 23 settlement conference in Portland and renewed offers of a cash settlement and mediation to Michael Fortin of Winslow. Fortin alleges he was sexually abused by the Rev. Raymond Melville for seven years, beginning when he was 13.

The offer and its refusal are unusual because Bishop Joseph Gerry has already been dismissed from the case on constitutional grounds. Even if Fortin’s suit against Melville is successful, the church could not be forced to pay damages.

But Fortin plans to appeal that dismissal to Maine’s highest court. The goal of the appeal is to overturn the current legal doctrine that makes Maine one of the most difficult states in the country to sue a church for the actions of individual clergy members.

While bishops in Arizona, Massachusetts and New Hampshire have recently been held responsible for abusive priests under their supervision, church officials in Maine are virtually exempt from those claims.

In a 1996 decision, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled that examining the relationship between bishop and priest would involve examination of church teachings on sin, penance and reconciliation.

Since that decision, the church hierarchy has been routinely excused from negligence claims in sex abuse cases. Abuse victims can still sue individual clergy members, who rarely have many assets.

The bishop’s lawyer said the church offered to settle with Fortin because Bishop Gerry approaches lawsuits against the church not only as a party but also as a pastor.

“Settlement is more healing for everybody,” Frederick Moore, who represents the diocese, told the Portland Press Herald. “These are tragic cases under any circumstance.”

The church also has an interest is settling a case that is likely bound for appeal, Moore said. Lawsuit are expensive and contain an element of risk.

Fortin’s lawyer, Sumner Lipman of Augusta, refused comment, and Fortin could not be reached for comment.

Melville could also not be reached for comment on Monday. He lives in Washington County and is no longer an active priest.

The case against Melville is scheduled to go before a jury in September.

AP-ES-06-03-03 0215EDT

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