The statute of limitations on a sex abuse claim against a government employee in Oregon may depend on when the victim realizes the government was involved, not when the actual abuse occurred.
The Oregon Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday the city of The Dalles could not claim the statute began running when a member of the police Explorer Scout program was sexually abused by a police officer in 1996.
The boy was 16 at the time, but he did not disclose the abuse until 2001, after learning that another police officer was under investigation for serving alcohol to a minor.
The victim was then called to testify at a grand jury hearing on the officer who abused him, James Tannehill, and realized he had a claim against the city.
Kelly Clark, attorney for the victim, said the ruling "closes one of the loopholes where the government goes to hide when a government employee abuses a kid."
Clark said government agencies have argued the statute of limitations begins when the abuse occurs, but that is "totally unrealistic for any child sex abuse survivor," especially when the offender is typically somebody in authority.
"If you have a government coverup, the clock begins to run when you discover the government had a role in the abuse," Clark said, "so it's really a big deal."
The victim filed a negligence and sexual battery claim against The Dalles in June 2002, and then added a federal civil rights claim in July 2003.
The city argued the two-year statute of limitations had already expired because the abuse occurred in 1996, but a trial judge rejected the argument.
The Oregon Court of Appeals, however, ruled in favor of the city, concluding that "at the time of the abuse itself, plaintiff had sufficient information" to determine he had a claim against the city.
The Oregon Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and sent the case back to that court for reconsideration.
In an opinion by Justice Martha L. Walters, the Supreme Court ruled the question about the sexual abuse claim should have gone to a jury to decide.
The court noted the Explorer Scout program in The Dalles was created and operated by the city in cooperation with the Boy Scouts of America to introduce teenagers to law enforcement and involve them in police operations.
The Boy Scouts had advised the city about its policies and procedures to prevent child sexual abuse, the court said, but the city delegated the authority to run the program to Tannehill without training him for the position and also failed to create a required oversight committee.
The victim was 16 and living in foster care when Tannehill approached him and suggested he enroll in the Explorer program. After regularly spending time alone with the victim, on and off duty, and serving him alcohol, Tannehill abused the teen, the court said.
The court said the teen was confused and asked two other city police officers about Tannehill serving him alcohol and whether he had an interest in boys. "One just laughed, the other told him he didn't want to talk about it," Walters wrote.
The victim broke off contact, graduated early from high school and joined the Army. He was 22 when his grandmother read him a newspaper article that reported the Oregon State Police had charged another police officer in The Dalles with serving alcohol to a minor.
The victim contacted state police investigators, told them about the abuse by Tannehill, and was called before a grand jury, where he "suspected for the first time that department members, and perhaps even command staff, may have permitted the sexual abuse that Tannehill had committed and failed to protect Explorers, including himself, against such abuse," Walters wrote.
The court said the indifference shown by the two fellow officers the victim questioned about Tannehill "discouraged any further inquiry."
The court also noted the victim did not discover until later that prosecutors and state police suspected the problem was more widespread than a single officer and that the city may have failed in its duty to protect him and other Explorer Scout members.
As a result, the Supreme Court ruled that a jury could have found the victim had filed his federal civil rights claim in a timely manner, and the trial judge correctly rejected the city's argument the statute of limitations had run.
Tannehill, a sergeant, and another officer were convicted in 2001 of abusing boys.
Oregon Supreme Court allows sex abuse claim