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As more people sue the Catholic Church alleging that priests abused them as children, they may run into an issue in Maine that they wouldn’t in most other states: If they are successful in court, they may not not have a clear path to receive damages.
That’s because charitable organizations in Maine, which solicit contributions from the public and can include religious entities, appear to have some immunity in negligence lawsuits due to a little-known doctrine originating in British common law from the 1800s.
Maine lawmakers are debating whether to revoke so-called charitable immunity, with many calling it a remaining barrier to justice for people who were molested as children.
Charitable immunity is why at least one man, who has spoken publicly about being sexually abused in his first year at Cheverus High School in Portland, has not pursued a lawsuit, showcasing the difficulty adults can face in formally reconciling with the trauma they may have carried for decades.
“You could go to court. You could win a case, win a judgment, but they could hide behind this charitable immunity defense and not have to pay,” said Michael Sweatt of North Yarmouth.
Sweatt, the former president of Puritan Medical Products, said Charles Malia, a former teacher and track coach at the Jesuit Catholic college preparatory school, sexually abused him one time in 1972 at Malia’s apartment in Portland. The only person Sweatt told was his wife until, 25 years later, his 14-year-old son was about to attend Cheverus and come face to face with Malia.
While he did not talk about Sweatt specifically, Malia admitted to the Maine Sunday Telegram in 2000 to abusing former students in the 1960s and 1970s.
It was the stories of such victims that helped propel a change to state law in 2021 to make it possible for people to sue over claims of child sexual abuse regardless of when the abuse occurred, given that children often delay disclosure for years. Since the law change, one trial law firm, Berman & Simmons based in Lewiston, has filed approximately 25 lawsuits related to child sexual abuse, said Michael Bigos, a partner at the firm.
But despite abolishing the civil statute of limitations for certain types of child sexual assault, Maine is one of a handful of states that still shields charities from liability in matters involving negligence, such as negligent hiring, supervision or retention of an employee. This immunity was originally adopted to protect charities’ assets. However, it does not shield charities in lawsuits resulting from the intentional act of a defendant, Bigos said.
“This shouldn’t be a way to not fully compensate somebody for the damages they suffered,” said Melissa Martin, public policy and legal director for the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “Right now, there’s a question about whether it applies in some negligence cases, and that was a barrier for some child abuse survivors who were trying to bring those cases.”
Recent child sexual abuse lawsuits have asserted that organizations, such as the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, which operates churches, were negligent for not telling families and the public about known abuse, which might have prevented further abuse from happening.
The lawsuits also say some Catholic-related organizations were negligent for not removing members of their clergy who abused children — instead reassigning them. All the while, the institutions continued to encourage parishioners to practice faith and obedience, and asked them for money for church upkeep and operations.
For a long time, Sweatt believed he was the only person Malia had harmed. Malia encouraged Sweatt to compete in track, Sweatt said, and asked him to come to his apartment to get running sneakers. After the abuse occurred there, Sweatt never returned to track but continued to have Malia as a teacher.
“It affects your ability to trust people. When someone would take advantage of you at 14 years old, it becomes a trust issue. You shut down,” Sweatt said. “It impacts me even today. There are periods of anger that I have that harken back to that.”
The Bangor Daily News could not reach Malia by phone. He did not reply to two emails over the course of a week.
When his son began attending Cheverus in 1997, Sweatt told the school what had happened to him when he was a student. He was told Malia denied it and that Sweatt was bringing up something from a long time ago, Sweatt said.
Sweatt eventually connected with nearly a dozen other former students who said they also were abused. Over the years, news stories have documented their continued push for Cheverus to accept responsibility.
In 2011, the school issued a statement referencing Malia and another school figure, Father James Talbot.
“Awareness of their abuse came to light in the late 1990s and remains a sad and well publicized part of Cheverus’ past,” it said. “It is through continued education and vigilance that we can prevent these abuses from ever happening again.”
The school said it offered to pay for counseling for victims, removed Malia’s name from the school track and added preventative measures, such as increased background checks and required training for coaches and teachers.
But those steps took years and came after continued pushing from former students, Sweatt said. He also doesn’t believe they went far enough.
In his testimony before legislators in April, Sweatt called charitable immunity the “final barrier to justice” for victims of child sexual abuse. He was speaking in favor of LD 1312, sponsored by Sen. Donna Bailey, D-Saco, which would end limits on damages in child sexual abuse lawsuits alleging negligence. No one submitted written testimony in opposition.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland did not respond to a request for an interview.
The doctrine of charitable immunity arose from British legal decisions in the 1800s, which were later overruled. But Massachusetts adopted the repudiated rule, according to U.S. court cases that laid out the history. Other states followed suit.
The Maine Legislature later codified and limited charitable immunity in 1965, capping damages for organizations found to enable child sexual abuse at the limit of their insurance coverage, Martin said.
This status earned Maine a D minus grade from Child USA, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Philadelphia. Thirty-seven other states have ended charitable immunity entirely or never recognized it, according to the group.
More recently, a 2009 decision by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, William Picher v. Roman Catholic Bishop of Portland, laid out a broad examination of charitable immunity, finding it was “a doctrine in general disrepute, but that it would leave it to the Legislature to decide whether to abolish it.