August 2, 2012

Portland diocese cleared in Augusta abuse case

By Betty Adams badams@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- A Superior Court judge has cleared the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland in the final count of a civil lawsuit alleging sexual abuse by a former city priest against a young boy.

The ruling says the diocese did not fraudulently conceal information about prior acts committed by Raymond P. Melville that would have alerted the alleged victim or his family to any danger.

William J. Picher, of Augusta, had accused Melville of sexually abusing him while he was a student at St. Mary's School between September 1986 and June 1988. Melville was ordained in Presque Isle in 1985 and his initial assignment was assistant pastor at St. Mary's Parish in Augusta.

Picher, now 38, filed his complaint in 2007. He also accused the diocese of covering up knowledge about previous sex abuse complaints against Melville.

The case never went to trial because Justice Donald Marden granted summary judgment in favor of the diocese on the case's outstanding count. Marden's 14-page ruling was filed Monday in Kennebec County Superior Court.

"It is undisputed that, prior to 1990, the diocese had not received a complaint or an assertion that Melville had sexually abused a child," Marden wrote.

In 1990, a Maryland man wrote to then-Portland Bishop Joseph J. Gerry, saying he had been "emotionally, sexually and physically abused" as a teenager by Melville between 1980 and 1985, during which time Melville was a seminarian studying to be a priest in Baltimore.

"Fear of public knowledge about what was going on forced me to remain silent," the Maryland man, who has not been publicly identified, wrote to the bishop, adding that he had been in counseling since 1986. "The possible tragedy of another young boy being a victim compels me to write this letter."

In June 1990, Gerry sent Melville to counseling at a treatment center in Minneapolis. Melville had returned to Maine by August 1990, when he was transferred to St. Joseph's in Lewiston. He later served parishes in Rumford and Machias.

"The diocese is relieved that the facts of the case are clear to the court," said Sue Bernard, spokeswoman for the Diocese of Portland. "The evidence shows that the first complaint of sexual abuse by Melville was received in 1990 and unfortunately could not have prevented abuse from 1986 to 1988 as reported by Mr. Picher."

Melville, now 70, defaulted after failing to respond to Picher's 2007 court complaint and was ordered to pay Picher $4.2 million in damages.

"We've collected very little money on the judgment," Picher's attorney, Sumner Lipman, said Thursday.

Lipman said Melville previously lived in Oklahoma, but appears to have relocated to North Carolina.

Bernard said Thursday that Melville was granted a leave of absence from active ministry in 1997 at his request "and has not had any ministry since that time."

"Technically, he is still a priest," Bernard said. "In 2005 we sent his case to Rome requesting he be returned to the lay state, and that case is still pending."

Even with the Superior Court ruling, Picher's case is not yet over. Lipman said he spoke with Picher Wednesday night about Marden's ruling.

"We are going to appeal the decision, and we disagree with some of the findings that (Marden) made," Lipman said. "When you take on the diocese in these cases, you expect you're going to lose in the lower court and you have to go to the law court to help establish the law on these types of cases."

The case has already been to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, which upheld a decision granting the diocese summary judgment on the basis of charitable immunity. But the state's high court sent it back to the superior court for findings on the fraudulent concealment allegation.

Lipman said the entire case will be appealed.

In a separate case, Michael Fortin, of Sidney, was awarded $500,000 in damages against Melville, and he settled with the church for an undisclosed amount. In that case, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled in 2005 that the protections of church leaders are limited when weighed against the welfare of children.

Fortin said he was sexually abused by Melville for seven years beginning in 1985, when Fortin was 13 and Melville was his parish priest in Augusta.

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