Robert Dupuis of East Lyme, Connecticut, could be among the first to file a lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland under a change in Maine law that eliminates the statute of limitations for filing child sexual abuse claims. Credit: Courtesy of Robert Dupuis

If you or someone you know needs resources or support related to sexual violence, contact the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s 24/7 hotline at 800-871-7741.

Robert Dupuis was part of a group of five boys who did chores around St. Joseph Catholic Church in Old Town in 1961, when he was 12.

The boys mowed the lawn, shoveled snow and helped out at church banquets and suppers, working under the supervision of the Rev. John J. Curran. But when Dupuis was alone with Curran, the priest sexually abused him, he said. It began with hugs, then progressed to fondling.

Dupuis went public with the abuse he experienced in 2008 when he urged the Augusta City Council to support removing Curran’s name from a downtown bridge, which the Legislature did the following year. Richard Malone, then bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, acknowledged the priest’s abuse and endorsed removing the priest’s name as well.

Thirteen years later, Dupuis, now 72 and a resident of East Lyme, Connecticut, may be among the first victims of child sexual abuse to sue the organization that protected his abuser after a law change that takes effect this fall removes the statute of limitations on such lawsuits.

Current state law effectively prevents people such as Dupuis who were abused as children prior to the late 1980s from suing their abusers and the organizations for which they worked. The law change, passed by the Legislature and approved by Gov. Janet Mills in June, lifts that time limit effective Oct. 18.

Dupuis said he is seriously considering a lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, noting that many abuse victims are reluctant to speak about their abuse.

“The reason I am doing this is to help people like myself, who have been sexually abused in their childhood, to come forward and speak about it and to help them heal,” he said. “I lived with my abuse for over 40 years before I came forward and was willing to speak about it.”

More lawsuits, but unclear how many

It’s unclear how many lawsuits could be filed after the statute of limitation ends in October.

An analysis on the cost of implementing the law change anticipated a “minimal number of new cases” that wouldn’t require additional funding for the state court system.

Michael Bigos, Dupuis’ Lewiston-based attorney who specializes in civil cases concerning childhood sexual abuse, said his office has fielded inquiries from several Mainers who want to know what their rights are with the statute of limitations removed.

“I expect there will be more when the new law takes effect,” he said.

Other states, including New York and California, that have lifted the statute of limitations have seen a plethora of lawsuits filed in the early days of eligibility.

Dave Guthro, spokesperson for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, did not respond to multiple emails and phone messages asking whether the diocese planned to set aside additional funds to deal with a possible onslaught of litigation.

The diocese notes in financial reports each year how much money it spends on sexual misconduct claims. That amount was $159,000 in 2020, $186,064 in 2019, $168,796 in 2018 and $1.5 million in 2017. A majority of those costs were for investigations and legal fees, reimbursed by insurance, rather than for payments to victims.

What goes into a lawsuit

A great deal goes into evaluating whether a victim of child sexual abuse has a viable case and is likely to collect damages by taking legal action, according to Bigos.

One of the first things he has clients do is put together a timeline of events outlining when and where the abuse occurred using “signposts” such as birthdays, holidays and the first and last days of the school year. It is also important to estimate the number of times sexual contact occurred and if there was a pattern, such as whether the abuse always happened in a particular location or when the abuser gave the child a ride home.

“Some victims think there has to be intercourse for them to have a case, but that is not required,” Bigos said. “A person may go forward with a case where there was fondling through clothes or skin-to-skin contact or kissing. Abuse is abuse.”

Bigos also requires that clients be willing to engage in counseling while the claim and lawsuit go forward. Even if they have undergone counseling previously, the legal process, which is unfamiliar to many victims and can take several years, can be an emotional experience, he said.

The final factor that goes into whether a case goes forward is “collectability,” Bigos said.

Most attorneys in Maine take sex abuse cases on a contingency, meaning they take as payment a portion of the damages the client receives. In Maine, that fee averages about a third of the damages collected, although it can be as high as half.

It can be difficult to collect a large amount of money from an individual or the estate of someone who has died. That is one reason why people who endured sexual abuse at the hands of clergy, teachers, coaches and other adults who worked or volunteered for organizations are in a better position to collect damages from institutions than they are from individuals. Religious denominations, school districts, scouting programs and other groups have insurance to help pay substantiated claims.

A lobbyist for the Catholic diocese and the insurance industry opposed lifting the statute of limitations at a March hearing on the bill before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee. Portland lawyer Bruce Gerrity warned that “reviving cases currently barred by the statute of limitations will create even more pressure on the burdened court system” and that many innocent defendants, including schools, local governments and other organizations, could be caught up in civil litigation.

“Punishing an innocent defendant with civil liability is no less unjust than denying compensation to a deserving victim,” Gerrity told lawmakers.

A step toward healing

Like many victims of child sexual abuse, Dupuis did not tell anyone about what he’d experienced until he was middle-aged. He was 59 when he spoke before the Augusta City Council.

A graduate of Maine Maritime Academy, he worked nearly 50 years as a nuclear engineer before retiring in April 2020. But he also abused alcohol for many years.

Dupuis was not an altar server due to his stutter and served instead with the group of boys who did chores around the Old Town church where Curran was the priest in 1961.

“During Christmas of that year, I told him I didn’t like what he was, and he told me to go to hell and get out,” Dupuis said. “He told me that I was unreliable and I couldn’t be depended on. I was devastated and didn’t know how to deal with it.”

The abuse affected his life for decades, Dupuis said.

“Even though I felt pain and guilt from my abuse, I also felt abandonment and mistrust with people of authority,” he said. “I lived with this mistrust of people throughout my adult life. Even though I had a very successful engineering career, I always felt I was insecure and inferior with family members and work colleagues.”

Curran was ordained as a priest in 1927. He served at the former St. Joseph Catholic Church in Old Town from 1960 to 1962, then was transferred to St. Augustine Catholic Church in Augusta where he served until his retirement in 1972. He died in 1976 at the age of 76.

Dupuis, who has participated in individual and group therapy for years, said that the Catholic church continues to minimize the impact of sexual abuse on children. His goal in speaking out is to help others.

“Once I confronted my fears and demons through many years of counseling and treatment, I am now released from these fears,” Dupuis said. “Today I am willing to speak out, to meet with other survivors of sexual abuse and hopefully help them heal.”

A lawsuit is one piece of the puzzle toward healing, he said.