PORTLAND, Maine — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court next month will consider whether a woman’s lawsuit against a former Catholic priest she claims abused her in the early 1970s while he was assigned to St. John Catholic Church in Bangor should go forward.
Oral arguments in Christine S. Angell v. Renald C. Hallee will be heard Sept. 13 at the Cumberland County Courthouse. It is one of 20 appeals the court will consider Sept. 13-15 but the only one alleging sexual abuse by a member of the clergy.
Angell, 49, of Portland sued Hallee and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland in March 2010 in Cumberland County Superior Court alleging that Hallee, who now lives in Massachusetts, sexually abused her between 1970 and 1973. Hallee and the diocese, through their Portland attorneys, denied the allegations of abuse.
Last September, a Superior Court justice granted the motion for judgment filed by the diocese and Hallee’s attorney and refused to allow discovery to go forward because the deadline by which Angell had to file her claims had passed.
The statute of limitations in civil cases involving sexual abuse was eliminated by the Legislature in 2000, but it was not made retroactive.
Angell’s attorney, Keith Varner of Augusta, argued in his brief filed with the state Supreme Court that the judge erred when he dismissed the lawsuit because it was barred by the statute of limitations. Hallee’s attorney, Peter DeTroy of Portland, said in his brief that under Maine law that applied when the alleged abuse took place, Angell should have filed her lawsuit by mid-November 1985, six years after she turned 18 and became an adult in the eyes of the law.
That might have been true, Varner said last week in a phone interview, if Hallee had remained in Maine. The statute tolled, or was suspended, once the ex-priest moved to Massachusetts and did not start running again until and unless he moved to Maine.
The Augusta attorney also said that because the judge denied his motion for discovery, it was not possible to confirm whether Hallee had lived in Maine since he first established a residence in Massachusetts. If he had, the statute of limitations would have started running again, according to Varner.
“The language of [the statute] at issue here is plain: ‘If a person is absent from and resides out of the state, after a cause of action has accrued against him, the time of his absence from the state shall not be taken as a part of the time limited for the commencement of the action,’” he wrote in his brief.
DeTroy argued that before the statute of limitations can be suspended, a person must intentionally try to avoid being served with a lawsuit. Hallee was never hiding, the attorney said in his brief.
“The record of this case is devoid of any fact or circumstance that may suggest — even remotely — that Hallee was not [amenable] to personal service of process by the Maine courts,” DeTroy wrote. “Indeed, with the same ease that Angell identified Hallee’s current residence and served him with process in 2010, she presumable could have served him before the limitations period ran out without any more effort that it took to locate and serve him now.”
Hallee left the ministry in 1977, according to Sue Bernard, spokeswoman for the diocese. Beginning in 1978, several times he petitioned the Vatican for laicization but it was not granted until May 4, 2009.
The diocese first learned of the abuse allegation against Hallee in 2009, Bernard said last week in an e-mail.
The claims against the diocese were resolved in April 2010, according to court documents. The sole defendant in the appeal is Hallee.