The Boston Globe reports today that Stephen Embry has filed a sexual abuse lawsuit against Harvard University, contending he was repeatedly molested by a swimming coach at the campus from 1969 to 1972. The alleged abuse began when Embry, now 55, was barely 12.
Embry, along with his lawyer, Carmen Durso, also asserts that Harvard misled him about the statute of limitations on abuse claims, and failed to disclose a previous claim brought in 1996 against the university and the swimming coach, Benn Merritt.
The complaint against Harvard, filed by the brother of one of Embry’s closest boyhood friends, was dismissed. The suit against Merritt was resolved by settlement, court records show. A few months after the lawsuit was filed, Merritt killed himself in his Billerica home.
The Globe reports today that Embry first contacted a university lawyer shortly after recalling the abuse, and contends that Harvard did not disclose the prior abuse claim against Merritt to deter him from taking legal action.
“They told me they didn’t know anything about this, that it happened too long ago,” he said to the Globe. “They lied to me.”
Citing a 2010 letter to Embry from a university lawyer, Durso told the Globe that the university committed fraud by misrepresenting the state’s statute of limitation law.
“They had no legal duty to provide him with information” about the previous case, he said. “But they couldn’t mislead him, and that’s what they did.”
Under Massachusetts law, victims of sexual abuse typically must file a civil claim within three years after they were last abused, or three years after turning 18. Under the “discovery rule,” victims can also file a civil claim within three years of when they realized they had been abused, although defendants will often challenge this on statute of limitations grounds.
According to the Boston Globe, in 2010, Ellen Fels Berkman, a university attorney, told Embry that she had “been unable to find anyone who would support your suggestion that Harvard is legally responsible.”
“The time has long since passed for bringing a legal claim against the university,” she added.
That assertion, Durso says, was fraudulent, and discouraged Embry from pursing legal action.
In a statement issued Wednesday, university officials said “there was nothing to prevent” Embry from taking legal action, and that there was no evidence Harvard was aware of any abuse at the time.
Embry’s case and others like it that I am looking into underscore the need to relax the state’s statute of limitation laws. Victims may not realize they have been abused until decades later.
“The laws have simply not kept up with the reality of the trauma,” said Jetta Bernier, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Children.