Maine Court Nixes Church Officials’ Charitable Immunity Defense

July 10, 2009

Maine’s highest court has ruled against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland in a sex-abuse case, concluding that a charitable immunity defense cannot be raised if church officials acted intentionally.

In a 5-2 decision, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court set guidelines for the charitable immunity defense in a lawsuit brought by William Picher of Augusta, who contends he was abused in the 1980s by a priest whose supervisors knew about his tendencies but did nothing to intervene.

The church claimed protection by charitable immunity, but the supreme court said the defense can be raised only in cases of negligent actions, not intentional acts. The case names the diocesan bishop as defendant without naming the present bishop, Richard Malone, by name. The reference is to bishops present and past and to that church office.

Describing it as a landmark decision, Picher’s attorney, Sumner Lipman, said the ruling establishes that fraudulent concealment is a clear cause of action, although the court did not specify whether that is just in sex-abuse cases or has wider application.

Gerald Petruccelli, attorney for the diocese, believes Lipman overstated the importance of the decision, and that the court’s decision should be viewed as guidance for continuing litigation surrounding the allegations.

“I use the term ‘landmark’ more sparingly,” said Petruccelli.

Petruccelli also took issue with a key allegation that four supervisors knew of the Rev. Raymond Melville’s tendencies but failed to take action. Such allegations “are easy to make and hard to prove,” he said. Melville left the priesthood in 1997.

Most states have done away with charitable immunity altogether, but some states like Massachusetts and New Jersey retain limited charitable immunity, said Stephen Rubino, a Margate, N.J., attorney who has been representing church abuse victims since the 1980s.

Even where the concept holds, it shouldn’t be applied to church leaders who knowingly sent abusive priests from parish to parish, Rubino said.

“If people transfer sex offenders from parish to parish to minimize the scandal on the faithful, there should be no charitable immunity for that,” Rubino said. “It’s not an act of charity. It’s an act of cover-up.”

Harvey Paul, Maine director of the Survivors Network of those Abused By Priests, agreed with Lipman that the decision will have broad implications in similar cases.

“There’s no hiding behind statutes anymore. It’s a wonderful ruling. It’s a red letter day for survivors throughout the state of Maine,” Paul said.

Paul said he hoped the ruling would open the door to more victims of clergy sexual abuse seeking redress with an ultimate goal of ending abuse. “Now there’s an opening in the door,” he said. “I say sling the door wide open.”


Associated Press writer David Sharp in Portland, Maine, contributed to this report.

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