PORTLAND, Maine — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Tuesday ruled against an Augusta man who claimed the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland knew the priest who abused him as a child was a serial abuser.
The justices unanimously upheld the decision of Superior Court Justice Donald Marden. He granted summary judgment to the diocese last year.
The state supreme court in June heard oral arguments in the case in Bangor for a second time. Justices four years ago affirmed 5-2 that under Maine law, charitable groups such as churches, museums and sports organizations are immune from claims for negligent actions, but it said they are not immune from intentional actions.
William Picher, 39, claimed in his lawsuit, originally filed in 2007 against the bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland in Kennebec County Superior Court, that Raymond Melville, 70, of North Carolina, who left the ministry in 1997, sexually assaulted him between 1986 and 1988 when Picher was a student at St. Mary Catholic School in Augusta. Picher alleged that Melville’s supervisors at the Chancery in Portland knew the priest had sexually abused children previously but hid allegations from parishioners.
The diocese claimed it did not receive a complaint about Melville until 1990, after the abuse of Picher had stopped.
Bishop Edward C. O’Leary was head of the diocese when Picher claims the abuse took place.
Picher’s lawyer, Sumner Lipman of Augusta, argued that the diocese had a duty to disclose to parishioners allegations that Melville had assaulted a 14-year-old in 1980 while in the seminary.
“The summary judgment record before us does not include any evidence, direct or circumstantial, that the diocese had knowledge, before or during the time when Picher was abused, that Melville was a sexual abuser of minors,” the court wrote in its five-page decision. “The information of which the diocese may have been aware, which disclosed no prior sexual abuse by Melville, is not the type of material information that triggers a duty to disclose.”
Lipman said Tuesday that in his opinion, there was evidence that the diocese knew of Melville’s previous abuse.
“We are extremely disappointed in the decision,” he said. “My client felt it was important to pursue this with the diocese so the priest didn’t get away with it. He feels he did the right thing [in filing the lawsuit].”
Picher was awarded $4 million in a separate case against Melville, Lipman said Tuesday.
“We have collected some but not much of that money,” the lawyer said.
Gerald Petruccelli, the Portland lawyer who represented the bishop, said Tuesday that the decision was correct.
“We are pleased to receive it and bring this case to a conclusion,” he said.