Six new lawsuits against Maine diocese say priest continued to abuse girls after changing parishes
Mar. 8—Patricia Harkins Butkowski named the priest who abused her when she first came forward nearly 20 years ago. But Maine law at the time said she couldn't sue.
A recent change in state law removing the statute of limitations for claims of childhood sexual abuse changed that and Butkowski and five other women who say they were abused by the Rev. Lawrence Sabatino as children in the 1950s and 1960s filed civil lawsuits against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland in Cumberland County Superior Court on Wednesday.
The diocese is challenging that law, and a Maine judge is weighing whether to send the question to Maine's highest court for review.
Butkowski's family reported the abuse immediately in 1958. Butkowski's attorneys, Michael Bigos and Jessica Arbour, said the diocese, instead of removing Sabatino from the priesthood or warning parishioners about the allegations, transferred him from Lewiston to a church in Portland where he continued to groom and sexually abuse young girls.
Sabatino died in 1990. He was a priest in Maine for 40 years and served at seven parishes. A report the Office of the Maine Attorney General released in 2005 shows that at least 13 women had come forward by that time, either personally or through family members, to say Sabatino sexually abused them after his transfer to Portland.
In 2021, the Maine State Legislature voted to repeal the statute of limitations for civil claims of childhood sexual abuse, allowing Butkowski and about 20 others to file lawsuits against the church.
A TRAIL OF EVENTS
Butkowski said she learned about the law change through news coverage of Ann Allen's complaint in December. Allen was the first to sue the church over Sabatino's abuse.
"I want them to apologize to me, and to all of us, for allowing this to happen and for not stopping it," Butkowski said.
Attorneys want the cases to move to trial quickly, without lengthy hearings and oral arguments, so a jury can decide if the diocese is liable for not taking more serious action against Sabatino and for allowing him to continue working with young girls.
Bigos said the international Roman Catholic Church has known for hundreds of years that priests have abused children. It was offering "treatment" to clergy accused of abuse by the 20th century, Bigos said, as several priests in Maine and elsewhere had been credibly accused.
Butkowski's own experience should have been enough warning to prevent Sabatino from abusing more children when he was moved to St. Peter Parish on Federal Street in 1958.
Butkowski, who first shared her story with the Press Herald in 2005, said she was in the first grade when Sabatino lured her and her older brother away from St. Patrick's School in Lewiston. He took them to a clearing in the woods, where he asked her brother to pick strawberries and then, once alone with Butkowski, he assaulted her.
When Butkowski's brother learned Sabatino had taken her into the woods a second time, he ran home and told their mother.
A doctor later documented evidence of the abuse and her family reported it to police in 1958. Rather than investigating, they sent the family to talk to the bishop. The diocese told the family that Sabatino would be kept away from other children. Instead, they transferred him to St. Peter Parish, where he was allowed to run a girl's church group and parishioners were never told about the allegations.
"My mother was told he would never, ever be in a position to oversee children," Butkowski said. "For my whole life, until 2005, I believed that mantra. It was not until 2005 that I found out there were other victims after me."
'I DON'T FEEL ALONE ANYMORE'
Five other complaints filed Wednesday describe what happened next. These women — including Theresa Day, Felicia Quatrano Ham, Mary Greene and two others who asked not to be named — say Sabatino had taken a "special interest" in them as young girls, many of whom also attended his after-school group at the church.
He provided relief to their busy families by taking them on trips in town and having them do chores around the parish. He bought them candy and enticed them with games and offers of private piano lessons.
"I remember every moment of what happened. I've never forgotten any second of it," said Mary Greene, who said she was abused by Sabatino while attending his sodality group in 1963 when she was about 8 years old. "I hope that this does help other survivors to come forward and that it helps keep children safe."
Allen, who also attended the sodality meetings as a 6-year-old girl, told reporters in December that she struggled with the secret of her abuse for decades, carrying it with her through adulthood and struggling with isolation.
"I don't feel alone anymore. And I hope they don't either," Allen said, clasping hands with Butkowski, both sitting tearfully among the newest plaintiffs.
One of the new plaintiffs said she had been grateful for Sabatino's attention before the abuse and for affection "that she was not always receiving at home from her large family."
Another woman said Sabatino brought her to two other men who abused her when she was about 6 to 8 years old.
Allen hopes the lawsuits will spur the diocese to implement preventive policies and change how it responds to people who come forward with allegations of sexual abuse.
A spokesperson for the diocese did not respond to an email Wednesday afternoon asking whether the diocese has or will apologize, and what policy changes they'd be willing to consider.
In December, the diocese's communications director, Dave Guthro, said the diocese's current process when clergy are confronted with abuse allegations is to place them on leave while police and a church review board investigate.
But the women suing the diocese Wednesday said this process hasn't been enough.
"This diocese has been really quick to say 'We're really sorry for what Lawrence Sabatino did to you,'" said Arbour, who works for a national firm representing cases against the Catholic church. "But what they have not said, and what they need to say, and what they're going to say in response to this lawsuit, is 'We're really sorry for what we did to you. For the decisions we made to put you directly in the crosshairs of a predator and a monster.'"
MORE CASES ANTICIPATED
The Press Herald sued the Office of the Maine Attorney General in 2005 to release the results of its investigation into the diocese, which revealed that at least 20 priests, who had since died, had been credibly accused of abusing children. No criminal charges were ever filed, either because there was deemed to be insufficient evidence to prosecute or because the statute of limitations had run out. The report also stated that the diocese wasn't criminally liable for any of the alleged abuse because in Maine the church wasn't legally required to report allegations until 1997.
Attorneys for the diocese have argued they're not responsible for the actions of Sabatino and other individuals. In November, their attorneys filed a legal challenge to the 2021 law, saying that lawmakers had no right to remove the statute of limitations. The diocese argued that the new law is unconstitutional because it creates new liability and exposes the church to "tens of millions of dollars" in potential claims.
Cumberland County Superior Justice Thomas McKeon, presiding in the Maine Business and Consumer Court, ruled that the law was constitutional in February, but the diocese is now asking him to refer the question to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
If he denies it, the diocese could still appeal his ruling directly. There is no time limit for when McKeon could make his decision.
"The court agrees that these questions are important, given the number of related cases already docketed," McKeon wrote in his previous ruling, with "a large number of new cases anticipated."