Ann Allen loved going to church in Portland, Me., and the after-school social group led by a dynamic priest in the 1960s, until she was sexually assaulted, at age 7, in the recesses of St. Peter’s Catholic Church. Allen, 64, is one of more than two dozen people who have sued the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland over the past year, seeking delayed justice since lawmakers allowed lawsuits for abuse that happened long ago and can’t be pursued in criminal courts because of time limits or evidence diminishing over time, the Associated Press reports. More survivors are pursuing cases as states consider repealing time limits for child sex crime lawsuits. Vermont was the first state to remove the limits in 2019, followed by Maine in 2021 and Maryland this year. Michigan, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts are preparing to take action before their legislative sessions end this summer. “The momentum is irreversible,” said Marci Hamilton of CHILD USA, a think tank aiming to prevent child abuse and neglect. In April, Maryland lifted time limits on child sexual abuse lawsuits against institutions less than a week after the attorney general detailed decades of abuse of more than 600 children by over 150 priests associated with the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Other states have briefly removed the statute of limitations on lawsuits for childhood abuse.
Those lawsuits have targeted churches, summer camps, scout groups, and other institutions accused of enabling pedophiles or ignoring wrongdoing. More states eliminating the limits would help achieve justice and prevention, according to advocates who say survivors tend to keep the trauma to themselves. New research suggests survivors typically come forward in their 50s. "More and more people come forward as they realize that they’re not alone,” said Michael Bigos, one of Allen’s attorneys, whose law firm has brought 25 lawsuits since last June and is evaluating more than 100 additional potential cases. In Maine, most of the newly filed civil lawsuits target the Diocese of Portland, accusing leaders of ignoring accusations against priests or moving them to new parishes, allowing the abuse to continue. Maine removed its time limits in 2000 to sue over childhood sexual abuse, but not retroactively, leaving survivors without recourse for older cases. Changes in 2021 allowed previously expired civil claims. The legislature is considering easing the statute of limitations on criminal charges for sexual assaults of children. The Portland diocese contends survivors had ample time to sue and it’s unconstitutional to open the door to new litigation seeking damages of “tens of millions of dollars.” A judge rejected the arguments and the diocese has appealed to the state supreme court.