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State supreme court considers constitutionality of statute of limitations in sex abuse cases

The Roman Catholic Bishop of Portland is asking the state supreme court to rule that Maine's recent law that removes the statute of limitations for child sex abuse cannot be applied retroactively. The church made its case before the law court this morning in Bangor.

The church argues that it cannot be named in lawsuits alleging sexual abuse that have expired under the statute of limitations that was lifted two years ago.

Multiple cases against the church have been brought since then, citing incidents going as far back as the 1950s.

But Gerald Petruccelli, representing the bishop, says that the state legislature does not have the power to apply the change retroactively, and to do so would violate the right to due process under the Maine constitution.

"There is no distinction in terms of this constitutional issue," Petruccelli said. "The scope of the legislature's power will be exponentially enhanced by affirmance of these orders in terms of retroactive legislation."

But Michael Bigos, the lawyer representing some of the alleged victims who are suing the diocese, argued that the law does not violate the state constitution, and the church has never had a right to allow sexual abuse.

"This case is about the will of the people upsetting the Diocese's mere expectation of getting away with enabling child sex abuse and coverups," he said.

Bigos says the U.S. Supreme Court has said that such retroactive applications do not violate the U.S. Constitution, a point echoed by state assistant attorney general Jason Anton.

In a statement Thursday afternoon, the Diocese says the case is not meant to minimize the effects of past abuse, but that the law is unconstitutional and will "significantly impact the diocese’s ability to serve the Catholic community of Maine."

Kaitlyn Budion is Maine Public’s Bangor correspondent, joining the reporting team after several years working in print journalism.