Pursuit of Justice: States Remove Statutes of Limitations, Allowing Survivors of Child Sex Abuse to Seek Redress
In the 1960s, Ann Allen found solace in her church and a vibrant after-school social group led by an influential priest. However, the innocent laughter and camaraderie were shattered when, at the tender age of 7, she became a victim of sexual assault at the hands of the Rev. Lawrence Sabatino in the recesses of St. Peter’s Catholic Church.
The haunting memories of that traumatic incident remain etched in Allen’s mind. Over five decades later, at the age of 64, she is among a group of over two dozen individuals who have filed lawsuits against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, Maine, seeking delayed justice for abuse that occurred long ago. These lawsuits, often barred by time limits or evidence erosion, have become possible due to recent legislative changes in several states.
Vermont took the pioneering step in 2019 by eliminating statutes of limitations for child sex crime lawsuits, and Maine followed suit in 2021. This year, Maryland joined the ranks, swiftly abolishing time limits on child sexual abuse lawsuits against institutions. The momentum continues to build, as Michigan, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts are set to take similar actions before the end of their legislative sessions this summer.
Marci Hamilton, CEO of CHILD USA, a think tank dedicated to preventing child abuse and neglect, asserts that the growing momentum behind removing time limits is an irreversible shift towards achieving justice and prevention. Maryland’s recent decision came shortly after the attorney general revealed a litany of abuses perpetrated by over 150 priests associated with the Archdiocese of Baltimore against more than 600 children, prompting urgent calls for reform.
Moreover, states like New York have temporarily suspended statutes of limitations on childhood abuse lawsuits, leading to the filing of over 9,000 cases within a two-year period. Institutions such as churches, summer camps, and scout groups have faced legal repercussions, as survivors seek accountability for enabling pedophiles or turning a blind eye to misconduct.
Advocates argue that the elimination of time limits will not only aid in achieving justice but also contribute to prevention efforts. Research indicates that survivors typically come forward in their 50s, often harboring their trauma in silence. As more individuals realize they are not alone, the number of survivors stepping forward is expected to increase.
Michael Bigos, one of Allen’s attorneys, shares her sentiment. His law firm has already initiated 25 lawsuits since June of the previous year, with over 100 potential cases under evaluation, including approximately 65 targeting the Portland diocese. The scale of the problem becomes evident as survivors start to break their silence and seek recourse.
For Ann Allen, confronting her past meant confronting her trauma. As a school principal in California, she championed the protection of children and supported abuse victims, all while silently grappling with her own painful secret. However, returning to Maine brought her buried memories bubbling to the surface, prompting her to take legal action.
Robert Dupuis shares a similar journey. In 1961, at the age of 12, he was abused by Rev. John Curran in Old Town, Maine. Decades later, in group therapy, Dupuis disclosed the abuse, and the revelation became a turning point in his life. Healing and liberation accompanied his disclosure, leading to improved relationships and a resolve to encourage others to speak out.
Most of the civil lawsuits filed in Maine target the Diocese of Portland, accusing its leaders of disregarding allegations against priests like Sabatino and Curran, or merely transferring them to different parishes, allowing the abuse to persist. The diocese, however, argues that survivors had ample time to file lawsuits and contends that opening the
door to new litigation is unconstitutional, fearing potential claims for damages in the tens of millions of dollars. Despite the diocese’s objections, a judge has rejected their arguments, and the diocese has now appealed to the state supreme court. Representatives for the diocese declined to comment on the ongoing legal proceedings.
Patricia Butkowski’s story echoes the pain and anger experienced by many survivors. In 1958, her family reported to the police that Sabatino had assaulted her at a parish in Lewiston, Maine. However, the diocese transferred him to Portland, where he continued to prey on vulnerable children like Allen and others.
Now residing in Oklahoma City, Butkowski, at the age of 70, longs for an apology from the church and acknowledgment of the harm inflicted upon her and countless others. She hopes that such recognition will allow her to regain some semblance of faith before her time runs out. The damage caused by the priest has left her soul shattered, leaving her feeling as though she no longer possesses one.
As survivors like Ann Allen and Robert Dupuis find the courage to come forward, seeking justice and healing, the removal of statutes of limitations for child sex abuse lawsuits represents a vital step in addressing the systemic failures that have allowed such abuse to persist within institutions. The pursuit of justice aims to not only hold perpetrators accountable but also to prevent future generations from enduring the same trauma.
Through these legal actions and the growing awareness surrounding childhood sexual abuse, society is slowly acknowledging the pain of survivors and striving to create a safer environment for vulnerable children. The fight for justice continues, propelled by the unwavering determination of survivors and the support of advocates working to break the cycle of silence and protect the innocence of future generations.