Supreme Court justices consider what bishop knew, when he knew it in priest abuse case

BANGOR, Maine — An Augusta man who claims he was abused in the 1980s by a Catholic priest has asked the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to consider what the bishop knew and when he knew it about the conduct of the Rev. Raymond Melville.

Justices heard oral arguments in the case Tuesday at the Penobscot Judicial Center. It was the second time the court has considered the case, originally filed in February 2007 in Kennebec County Superior Court.

The state’s high court 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, claims 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 also alleges that Melville’s supervisors at the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland knew the priest had sexually abused children previously but hid allegations from parishioners.

Gerald Petruccelli, the Portland attorney representing the diocese, told the justices Tuesday that the bishop’s office did not receive its first complaint about Melville until 1990, after the alleged abuse of Picher ended. It could not conceal what it did not know, he said.

Bishop Edward C. O’Leary was head of the diocese when Picher claims the abuse took place.

In the latest appeal, Picher’s attorneys argued that Superior Court Justice Donald Marden erred in granting summary judgment to the diocese and abused his discretion by refusing to permit Picher and his lawyers access to Diocese records containing the names of clergy accused of sexual misconduct and the names of their accusers.

Picher’s attorney, Peter Bickerman of Readfield, told the justices Tuesday that while a seminarian in 1980 at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, Melville began sexual assaulting a then-14-year-old boy. During the summers of 1983 and 1984, the boy stayed with Melville at the rectory of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Gardiner, Bickerman said. The attorney told justices that the diocese should have questioned Melville’s behavior then.

“A duty to inquire is different than a duty to disclose,”Justice Jon Levy said Tuesday.

Bickerman also said that in 1984, two years before alleged abuse of Picher began, another boy, then 13, at St. Mary’s went on a trip to Machias with Melville. While there, the boy called home saying that “Melville was wrestling with him and attempted to ‘bite him on the butt.’”

When the 13-year-old boy’s father learned what had happened about the ‘wrestling match,’ he drove to Bangor to meet with the Rev. Paul Coughlin, who had been assigned previously to St. Mary’s. Coughlin was a member of the bishop’s advisory council of clergy who met periodically with the bishop about clergy assignments.

Bickerman told justices that the diocese had a duty to inform Picher’s parents of the complaint made to Coughlin.

Petruccelli disagreed. He said that Coughlin learned of the alleged incident with Melville in the confessional, so the priest could not tell anyone about it, not even his bishop.

Justice Ellen Gorman said that one of the problems with Picher’s case was when his abuse allegedly took place.

“No one at the hearing can argue the church was not rife with intentional concealment after 1988,” she said.

Whether the court’s ruling would make it easier for other victims of clergy abuse to file claims against the diocese will depend on how broadly or narrowly the court rules, Augusta attorney Sumner Lipman, Bickerman’s co-counsel said after oral arguments.

“Mr. Picher was 16 in 1990 and the diocese still did not do anything,” Lipman said. “They could have notified his parents.”

Petruccelli declined to comment on the case outside the courtroom.


An earlier version of this story requires correction. A quote from Justice Ellen Gorman should have read: “No one at the hearing can argue the church was not rife with intentional concealment after 1988,” not “ripe with intentional concealment.”


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