Anyone who has experienced childhood sexual abuse in Maine soon will be able to file a civil claim against their perpetrator, no matter how long ago the abuse occurred.
In 2000, Maine eliminated the statute of limitations for those lawsuits. But that policy was not retroactive, so victims whose claims had expired still could not bring them forward. On Monday, Gov. Janet Mills signed a bill that will lift the statute of limitations for those cases as well. Supporters said that means more survivors will have the option to take their abusers to court.
“Every year, I turn away dozens of survivors whose claims had expired because of the statute of limitations,” said attorney Michael Bigos, who specializes in litigation related to child sexual abuse. “Now, those survivors can come forward.”
Rep. Lori Gramlich, a Democrat from Old Orchard Beach and a longtime social worker, sponsored L.D. 589. In her public testimony on the bill, she disclosed that she is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, and said that she saw this bill as an opportunity to give others a chance to be heard.
“For me, it’s not about suing somebody for big bunches of money,” Gramlich said. “It’s about having an opportunity to have justice.”
Under the previous law, survivors who experienced abuse before 1987 generally would not be able to file lawsuits about their experiences as children. But research shows that people who experience sexual abuse at a young age wait years to report or never report. Child USA, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Philadelphia, points to a German study that showed the average age to report among a group of more than 1,000 survivors was 52 years old.
“This legislation will not just give survivors of child sexual abuse the right to justice they so deserve, but perhaps more importantly, it also will expose hidden sexual predators in our midst and hold accountable institutions that cover up abuse and fail to protect children,” Kathryn Robb, the executive director of Child USAdvocacy and a survivor, said in a news release about the new law. “Thanks to the outstanding work of Rep. Gramlich and other leaders, Maine’s children are now the safest in the country.”
In written testimony on a similar bill, Robb described a national trend toward extending or eliminating the statute of limitations for civil claims and criminal prosecutions involving childhood sexual abuse. She wrote that at least 17 other states were trying to revive expired claims, and her group supported that effort in Maine.
Gramlich said she was inspired to submit this bill because she heard about a similar effort to revive expired claims in New York. That state created a fixed window for those claims to be filed, and Maine went further by making the change permanent.
“This has been a taboo topic for a long, long time,” she said. “It’s about time that we hold these perpetrators accountable.”
The bill did generate some opponents, including the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, which argued that the statute of limitations was already wide in Maine and the legal process could be burdened by older claims.
“Defendants and courts must be protected from having to deal with cases that are so aged that no response is possible, be it as a result of loss of evidence, death, the passage of time and natural erosion of memory or lack of documentation,” attorney Bruce Gerrity wrote in his testimony on behalf of the diocese.
Bigos, who testified in support of the bill on behalf of the Maine Trial Lawyers Association, said he represents several clients who are part of a class action lawsuit alleging sexual abuse by the Boy Scouts of America, including those whose claims are currently barred in state court. He described the new law as informed by research about trauma, and he called on more organizations to publicly release the names of employees or members who have been accused of sexual abuse.
“The damage done to survivors can be profound,” he said in an interview. “Survivors need to be able to come forward when they are ready.”
The law will go into effect 90 days after the Legislature adjourns.
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