As he walked into the restaurant, the last 25 years instantly melted away. He was my high school boyfriend, European travel partner and a man who I had not seen in nearly three decades. Most importantly, he was—and always will be—someone whose lifelong friendship I treasure deeply.
We sat across the table from one another catching up on each other’s lives. The challenges and joys of raising children, dreams—some fulfilled and some unfulfilled—and more. The nervousness that I initially felt had long dissipated. I felt like it was just yesterday that we were young and innocent without a care in the world. The hours passed quickly.
It was well into our time together, reminiscing about vibrant antics in Switzerland, France and Italy, when the conversation suddenly turned serious.
Tom came to see me that day with absolutely no intention of sharing a secret he had held within his soul for decades, sharing his pain with only a few select people. But he found himself opening up about the most painful part of his life. He avoided eye contact with me as he softly said, “I was sexually molested as a child.”
Suddenly, certain things I had observed about him over the years made perfect sense. The times he felt guilty for things that a typical 17-year-old young man would experience in a relationship with his girlfriend. His struggle to hold a job. His issues with authority.
My heart filled with sadness and my own eyes filled with tears as I witnessed the pain in his eyes. I wondered silently, “Why is he choosing to share this with me now?” We had traveled through Europe together, witnessed one another at our best and our worst, and yet it had taken him 36 years to tell me about this horrific event that occurred when he was a vulnerable 7-year-old child. And then he continued to share his story.
Minnesota, the state in which he lives and where we both grew up, had enacted the Child Victim Act in May of 2013. The law changed the statute of limitation applied to civil legal claims for survivors of childhood sexual abuse with certain restrictions.
Under the previous law, any opportunity that Tom had to file a lawsuit against his perpetrator had long ago expired. He had filed a police report after a dozen years in counseling, but the statute of limitations was only three years from the abuse then. Yet with the enactment of the 2013 Child Victim Act, there was now a window of three years that allowed Tom to finally confront the man, in a legal setting, who abused him. “I could finally hold him accountable,” said Tom of the torture that endured well beyond the incidents of his youth. “I wanted him to finally see, in black and white, that he didn’t get away with it.” But the deadline was looming. With the new window allowing certain qualifying victims to file a lawsuit by May 24, 2016, Tom had just a little over a month to file a civil case and serve the man with the summons and complaint.
I had practiced law but had left the field several years earlier to raise my children. Besides, I was a bankruptcy attorney and I had never been licensed to practice in Minnesota. But I was determined to find justice for this dear friend who desperately needed an advocate. After contacting several of my friends and getting referrals to local attorneys, it became clear that the Minnesota lawyers who were well versed in this field were busy with lawsuits against the Catholic Church—going for the deep pockets. I utilized the investigative skills I had acquired in previous positions and located the man who had assaulted Tom. I found the name of a nonprofit agency that advocates for sexual-abuse victims. The attorney agreed to take his case, and the lawsuit was filed and the defendant served the final day before the new statute of limitations expired. The first hurdle was met.
Sadly, the perpetrator did not have a lot of money and, in the end, the case was settled for nowhere near what Tom’s true monetary damages had been calculated to be—like a penny on the dollar for the lost wages amount alone. And that does not include physical or emotional damages yet. Imagine losing a couple million dollars. But he was able to hold his perpetrator accountable and might have let his perpetrator know that sexual abuse caused Tom harm—and still continues to affect him. Yet, true justice had not been served, as there was also a confidentiality clause in the settlement agreement. Tom could not disclose the nature of the settlement or disparage the defendant in any way. “The pain of being gagged by the settlement has framed a different bondage,” said Tom.
It was heartbreaking, as one of Tom’s many reasons to pursue the lawsuit was to encourage other possible victims of this man to step forward. He doubted he was the only one and almost everyone he told had posed the question, “Who else?”
It has not yet been a year since the end of the lawsuit. His pain continues. The question remains, “What would true justice even look like?” But having shared his story with certain people has provided Tom with some emotional encouragement he’s craved for all these decades.
“Opening up [to others] has provided me with more support than I have ever gotten. Yet, it is still not enough to sustain me past the hurt,” said Tom. “This rapist severely damaged the core of my being.”
In the last several months, we find our country in a whole new era of women coming forward each and every day to say they were victims of abuse. The #metoo movement is strong. It is supportive. No longer will women be silenced by the threat of powerful men. They are sharing their stories and they are, for the most part, being believed. But we must not forget that there are men who are also victims. And there are children whose voices have not been heard; children unable to figure out what happened much less to be able to come forward and articulate it.
In media reports, many perpetrators counter the accusers by saying, “Why did they [the victims] wait so long to come forward? It cannot be true, especially since they waited so long.”
While it is encouraging to see so many coming forward, there are still many who are not. The reasons are many. Shame. Fear of people not believing them. Inability to take any legal action due to too much time having passed. But what if, like Minnesota and other states, there was not a statute of limitations? In Minnesota, the statute was extended for just three years’ time and only applied to civil actions. I would advocate, as I am sure many would, for no statute of limitation in either civil or criminal actions.
The reasons for either extending or eliminating the statute of limitations on this type of law are clear. Such a law change encourages victims to break the silence and empowers them. The reality is many victims are not prepared for a long time, sometimes many years—sometimes never—to deal with the physical and emotional ramifications of abuse, much less press criminal charges or bring a civil action.
And as far as the confidentiality clauses, let’s do away with those as well. Stop protecting those who are the perpetrators. It perpetuates the abuse. By allowing victims to come forward and share their stories, we can encourage others to do the same.
As for Tom and so many like him, the reality of life continues with obstacles. It took him 36 years to share that part of his past with me, and many others from his youth still do not know. He recently told me that it is a source of embarrassment for him, and he has felt very alone during this journey.
“While the #metoo [movement] is a breaking out point for many, I’m still left in the shadows. I stay in the shadows. I’m embarrassed I only live in the shadows after those glory days of [a] younger me who wasn’t all wrapped up in the aftermath of the perpetrator’s twisted whim,” said Tom. “That’s the difficulty of living each day. It still taunts me.”
In the past few weeks, Tom has found some new hope. He learned about a treatment through a colleague of mine called EMDR [eye movement desensitization and reprocessing]. It is a form of psychotherapy that uses eye movements or other forms of bilateral stimulation to assist clients in changing thought patterns of distressing memories and beliefs. After two sessions, Tom is more hopeful now than the past 47 years of secrets that have been binding him.
“I hear about stories on the news about abuse and am able to listen without feeling physically ill,” he recently shared. Used often for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, EMDR treatment assumes that when a traumatic or distressing event occurs, it can overwhelm one’s normal coping mechanisms with the memory, and the associated stimuli are inadequately processed and stored in an isolated memory network.
Yes, the recent #metoo movement has shown great progress in encouraging women—and men—to come forward. But there is still much work to be done. This is just one man’s story. Let’s give a voice to those who have been silenced far too long. If you know someone who is a victim, offer to listen. Encourage them to come forward and seek help. All it takes is one person to encourage, lend an ear and be an advocate.
If you or someone you know is a victim of sexual assault, there is 24-hour help available. Please call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673). A trained staff member will connect you with a sexual assault service provider in your area.