AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — A state judge on Tuesday upheld a Maine law that eliminated the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse, allowing survivors to pursue lawsuits for sex crimes that happened decades ago.
An attorney for more than a dozen plaintiffs who have brought civil lawsuits since the law went into effect praised the decision.
“Survivors have suffered a lifetime of pain that has affected their relationships at home, at work, and in the world. Now survivors are empowered to face those who allowed such heinous abuse and hold them accountable,” attorney Michael Bigos said in a statement.
The judge ruled in a motion in the first of the new civil lawsuits, but the decision is expected to be appealed.
A lawyer for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland contended that the 2021 law was unconstitutional because it made retroactive changes that violated both vested rights and due process rights.
But Justice Thomas McKeon sided with the plaintiff in the case, saying vested rights generally apply to property rights, not statutes of limitations, and that the law can apply to institutions as well as individuals accused of abuse.
But the judge also wrote that it was a “close case” and that attorneys for the diocese had raised “serious” constitutional concerns.
McKeon halted proceedings in the lawsuit until attorneys for the church have an opportunity to appeal to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. An attorney for the Diocese of Portland didn’t immediately return a message seeking comment.
Maine removed its statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse cases in 2000, but that change wasn’t retroactive, so victims couldn’t sue for older crimes. Changes to state law in 2021 made it possible for people to seek legal action for older claims that previously expired.
The diocese unsuccessfully fought against the law. The legislative sponsor said the goal was to give survivors a voice — not big settlements.
An attorney for the diocese contended survivors already had ample time to sue and that new litigation could lead to requests for damages in the “tens of millions of dollars.”