Victims of long-ago abuse find justice in some U.S. states

Reuters News
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Posted: May 11, 2016 7:02 AM

By Fiona Ortiz

(Reuters) - Minnesota's reform of child sex abuse laws has given Laura Adams a chance to come forward with accusations she long feared to make public: that an employee of a children's theater in Minneapolis abused her in the early 1980s when she was a teenager.

Adams, 48, and another woman sued the Children's Theatre Company and former employees for abuse and failure to prevent it. The lawsuit was filed last year during a legal window the state created for victims.

Hundreds of people have brought similar lawsuits in Georgia, California, Delaware and Hawaii, which enacted similar reforms to eliminate or extend statutes of limitations for up to three years to allow victims to bring civil actions.

Without reforms such as these, people who say they survived sex abuse decades ago have little hope for seeking justice.

Criminal prosecutions of decades-old abuse cases remain impossible since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that it is unconstitutional to retroactively change statutes of limitations. Still, advocates say civil cases give victims a chance to break decades of silence. Most such lawsuits lead to out-of-court settlements, according to lawyers who handle sex abuse cases.

"This window of opportunity is the biggest gift I can even imagine," Adams said in a telephone interview. "For me it's about making the conversation around child sexual abuse no longer a taboo subject."

While one of the founders of Children's Theatre Company pleaded guilty to sex abuse charges in 1984, Adams said she and others were too intimidated at the time to bring up abuse by other staff.

The Children's Theatre said in a statement when the lawsuit was filed that it stands with abuse victims in their desire to see justice done, but does not believe the company was negligent.

A lawyer for former actor and teacher Jason McLean, whom Adams names as her abuser, did not respond to a request for comment.

The difficulty in addressing old sex abuse cases was seen recently in the case of ex-U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who admitted in federal court he molested high school wrestlers in the 1960s and 1970s while he was a coach. However, he cannot be prosecuted or sued under the laws of Illinois.

After Hastert was sentenced for a financial crime related to the sex abuse cases, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan called for the complete elimination of the state's statute of limitations on sexual abuse crimes against children.

Other states are also looking at reforming statutes of limitations.

In Pennsylvania, the state Senate may consider reforms that were passed in April by the House, shortly after a grand jury report said bishops at the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese covered up sexual abuse of hundreds of children over four decades.

Opponents of reforms include the Roman Catholic Church and insurance companies that say evidence is difficult if not impossible to find after so much time has passed, and that litigation drives institutions into bankruptcy.

Backers of reforms say it can take decades for victims to break through denial and shame, and seek legal action.

That was the case with Barry Singer, who along with 33 other victims has claimed abuse by staff at the private Yeshiva University High School for Boys in Manhattan in the 1970s.

Singer said he is disappointed New York state senators have resisted reform, even though the state's lower house has backed initiatives to do so.

He and other victims sued the school for covering up the abuse, but the case was thrown out due to the statute of limitations. The school investigated abuse complaints and issued an apology in 2013 and said it was adopting new policies to prevent abuse.

In a phone interview, Singer said: "I didn't realize that the manhandling and the wrestling and the fondling and the groping that I endured as a child was sex abuse until my own children were in school and I began to think, 'What if this had been done to them?'"

(Reporting by Fiona Ortiz in Chicago; Editing by Ben Klayman and David Gregorio)