Jan. 22—The removal in 2021 of the statute of limitations on allegations of sexual abuse in Maine has led to a host of child sex abuse lawsuits against the church, which has led the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland to challenge the constitutionality of this new legal landscape.
A man protesting the church's challenge referred last week to the existence of a "playbook."
Picketing the diocesan chancery building in Portland, Robert Hoatson told WGME: "These guys have a playbook. The playbook is this: Don't really take allegations seriously; don't promise any kind of justice for these people; and third, we've got to protect the image and the assets of our church."
Has the Catholic Diocese of Portland been living under a rock for the past 40 years? Because there's another playbook out there, one that's been in circulation for some time now.
This playbook is the product of repeated findings of institutionally sanctioned child sex abuse by the Catholic Church worldwide. It's been gradually brought into being by the courage of survivors, the work of independent inquiries and investigations and the indignation of the public.
On its face, at least, it involves encouraging allegations and supporting the people brave enough to revisit events of their past. It professes to be grounded in humility and apology and relies increasingly on concepts like restorative justice. It acknowledges there is no good reason to doubt those who say they have been abused.
By contrast, the recent approach of the Portland diocese has been informed by denial and pure self-interest.
The diocese's response challenges people who may feel they have been challenged by the consequences of abuse all their lives. It tells them they should have come forward sooner. It sends out a chilling message to any survivor who may ever have dreamed of justice in any form.
Anything short of an independent investigation of allegations of abuse is not worthwhile. But the diocese has expressed satisfaction with internal busywork which results in the "clearing" of names, as in the case of the Rev. Robert Vaillancourt. With stunning certitude last July, the diocesan Office of Professional Responsibility found that sexual abuse alleged by two women "could not have occurred."
The diocese has since transferred Vaillancourt — again, a cleric alleged to have abused children — from one parish to another, as if it wasn't a move so abhorrent and common the world over that it has a slang descriptor: priest shuffling.
If the bare, calculated opposition to claims of child sex abuse wasn't bad enough, the church's response has been tone deaf. A spokesman struck a jubilant note when he characterized staff at the Auburn parish that Vaillancourt was moved to as "thrilled." The same spokesman, responding to allegations of abuse causing permanent psychological damage by a former monsignor and nun, had the temerity to issue a statement about the church's "working tirelessly" to ensure it was a safe environment for young people.
Contrast this PR offensive with the response of the church to similar allegations 10 or 15 years ago. Then-Bishop Richard Malone spoke of a "sad and shameful episode of Church history" that would "continue for as long as victims were in pain." (We did hear about heartlessness from Bishop Deeley last week — in remarks about the direction state abortion law is going in.)
What is the constitutional challenge by the Portland diocese if not an attempt to delay or deny justice? It is mounted as if successive decades of revelations have not made clear the sickening culture of abuse and exploitation that the church supported and painstakingly concealed for centuries. The church insults all of Maine by acting surprised.
Our state finds itself confronted with a self-righteous and litigious church. Why is it that we seem to have gone back in time? Maybe we've strayed too far from the atmosphere created by the publication of The Boston Globe's Spotlight investigation. Maybe the climate of "cancel culture" has had an emboldening effect against succumbing to public or even legal pressure.
Attorney Michael Bigos of Portland, representing the plaintiffs, recently told the Press Herald that while the state's investigation of sexual abuse of minors by priests in 2004 was "groundbreaking," that the church was due for another.
We firmly agree.
Our new reality requires new attention to detail. Without exerting appropriate pressure on the Portland diocese, any hope of progress for people coming forward is all too remote. Positive momentum is stalled. Resignation takes hold again.
Hoatson, the picketer, is a former Catholic priest who founded a New Jersey-based nonprofit to assist survivors of sexual assault. He told the Press Herald earlier this month just how discouraged he was by the church's defiance. "I've told victims over the years: 'You're going to face opposition, and it's going to come from the institution that's supposed to be the most moral,'" he said.
"I think the church is waiting for us to die."