Robert Dupuis, who is suing the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland for sexual abuse he says he experienced as a child at the hands of a priest, hugs Rep. Lori K. Gramlich, D-Old Orchard Beach, on Thursday. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court heard oral arguments regarding the diocese’s challenge to a 2021 law Gramlich sponsored that removed the statute of limitations for civil claims of child sex abuse. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

BANGOR — They never thought their stories would make it to a Maine courtroom.

The Penobscot Judicial Center was filled Thursday with people who allege they were sexually abused as children by employees of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland as far back as the 1950s. They arrived with their families, some from the Bangor area, and some from as far away as Connecticut and Oklahoma.

But they weren’t there for a jury trial. Instead, they watched as seven Maine Supreme Judicial Court justices questioned their lawyers about a 2021 state law that scrapped the statute of limitations for civil claims of childhood sexual abuse and allowed them to file dozens of lawsuits against the church leaders and the institution itself.

“I don’t think I’ve seen this many people in the courtroom before for Law Court arguments,” Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill said at one point.

The diocese, which in most cases does not dispute that the plaintiffs were abused by priests, nuns and other staff, asked the high court not to rule on the merits of their claims, but whether the law itself is constitutional, and whether at least 30 cases filed under the law can move forward.

Maine lawmakers agreed in 2000 to eliminate the statute of limitations for civil claims about child sex abuse in cases alleged to have occurred after 1987. It wasn’t until 2021 that lawmakers agreed to allow all claims, regardless of when the abuse was alleged to have occurred.


The diocese officially challenged the constitutionality of the 2021 law last November after more than a dozen decades-old complaints had been filed against the church.

Rep. Lori Gramlich, D-Old Orchard Beach, sponsored the law in 2021 and was in Bangor for the arguments on Thursday.

“Many of the survivors coming forward now are telling their stories for the first time after years of dealing with the aftermath of unspeakable trauma,” she said in a written statement afterward. “I am hopeful that the state’s highest court will preserve survivors’ right to pursue long-overdue justice in the courts.”


Attorneys spent more time answering questions from the justices Thursday than laying out their cases, which they outlined in lengthy filings to the court months beforehand.

Stanfill said the justices didn’t receive a specific question to consider when Superior Justice Thomas McKeon forwarded the case to the high court in April. So any ruling they ultimately issue could have implications beyond the 2021 law and answer broader questions about statute of limitations.


The justices repeatedly asked Gerald Petruccelli, who represents the diocese, how they should consider rulings in other states that upheld similar laws.

Petruccelli pointed to a Connecticut Supreme Court ruling on a similar law that directly referenced Maine’s constitution. That court said Maine’s constitution takes a hard line against retroactive laws that revive previously “time-barred” claims.

He described the Maine Constitution as being constantly at odds with federal laws and legal decisions when it comes to vested rights. He cited a number of cases from the 1820s to 2022 that he said support this.

The diocese has argued the law is unconstitutional because it violates the diocese’s due process rights to a fair trial. The church is at a disadvantage to defend itself because so much time has passed and many of the people involved in these cases have died or no longer live in Maine, Petruccelli has said.

Statutes of limitations also protected the church and countless other defendants from an inadequate defense, Petruccelli argued. He said the benefits the church enjoyed under the previous law should be viewed as a “vested right,” a term usually used in reference to property rights. The law created new liabilities, he said, including for “negligent supervision,” a legal principle that holds organizations liable for their employees actions, which Petruccelli said wasn’t adopted in Maine courts until 2005.

All of this unfairly supports a person’s ability to sue, and deprives defendants of their right to a “dispositive, successful defense,” Petruccelli argued. “What is fair about that?”


But the law was enacted by lawmakers who were elected by the people, attorney Michael Bigos argued. Bigos is representing 30 people who have filed civil complaints against the diocese under the new law. All of those lawsuits are on hold while the high court considers the law.

“This case is about the will of the people, upsetting the diocese’s near expectation they can get away with child abuse,” Bigos said in court. “There’s never been a right to enabling child sex abuse. … Court procedure is not property. It cannot be bought, sold or traded.”

Several state supreme courts, along with the U.S. Supreme Court, have found statutes of limitations aren’t substantive rights or included in the U.S. Constitution, Assistant Attorney General Jason Anton argued Thursday on behalf of the Maine Office of the Attorney General, which also has stepped in to defend the law.

Attorney Michael Bigos, who is representing dozens of people suing the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland for childhood sexual abuse, presents arguments to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Thursday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Bigos said the diocese’s arguments will “drag us back to the 1800s.”

“Do we really want to revert backwards?” Bigos asked the court.

“And do we really want to be an island of other states, who are allowing survivors to come forward in their courts?” he said, referencing cases in Vermont and New Hampshire’s high courts that upheld similar laws.



Petruccelli and Bigos declined to speak with a reporter after Thursday’s arguments out of respect to the court, they said.

Justices have no timeline for when they must issue their decision.

Neither Bishop Robert Deeley nor anyone with the diocese was in Bangor for the arguments. Molly DiLorenzo, a spokesperson for the diocese, said Thursday that they have been following the case “and are aware of the arguments and questions being discussed in court.”

“The diocese’s opposition to the 2021 retroactive change in the statute of limitations law, and the appeal to the Law Court, in no way reflects a desire to minimize the devastating effects of past sexual abuse by Church representatives,” the diocese said in a statement. “The diocese is committed to thoroughly investigating any report of abuse brought forth and to providing extensive support services to those who come forward with any allegation of abuse.”

“It is our belief that this law is unconstitutional and will significantly impact the diocese’s ability to serve the Catholic community of Maine, including those most vulnerable.”


Many of the 30 people who filed lawsuits against the church were in the room Thursday, but they declined to speak with reporters after the hearing.

In previous statements and interviews, they have described a desire for accountability and public apology from the church. They described struggling throughout adulthood to reconcile what happened to them – and some mentioned feeling less alone as more people who say they were abused by the church come forward to file their own complaints.

Most of the church employees accused of abuse were identified roughly 20 years ago after the attorney general’s office released the results of an investigation in 2004, including a list of at least 20 dead priests who had been credibly accused of abusing children. The results were released after the Press Herald sued the state in 2005.

But the church itself has not been held accountable for knowing about the abuse and concealing it, the complaints state.

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