Four years ago, the memories came rushing back, an avalanche of horrifying images that shattered the life Stephen Embry had known.
He doubted them at first, but came to realize what he knew as the truth. He had been sexually abused as a boy.
“Suddenly, something snapped, and everything came back,” he said. “I wished it never had. It was like a reel, playing over and over.”
On Wednesday, Embry 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, who often represents victims of sexual abuse, 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.
Embry, who first contacted a university lawyer shortly after recalling the abuse, 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. “They lied to me.”
Citing a 2010 letter to Embry from a university lawyer, Durso said 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 can file a civil claim within three years of when they realized they had been abused.
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.
“The acts that Mr. Embry says that he suffered at the hands of his neighbor can only be described as despicable, but there is no basis to suggest that the University had any knowledge of these events when they allegedly occurred more than three decades ago,” officials said.
Durso and advocates of abuse victims say Embry’s case underscores the need to relax the state’s statute of limitation laws. Like many victims, Embry realized he had been abused decades later, and the devastating effects made the idea of a legal challenge seem overwhelming, specialists said.
“The laws have simply not kept up with the reality of the trauma,” said Jetta Bernier, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Children.
Bernier said that lawmakers are debating a proposal to eliminate time limitations on criminal and civil claims in sex abuse cases and that supporters are confident the restrictions will be eased.
“It would have huge implications for many, many victims,” she said.
After receiving the letter from Harvard, Embry continued to search for answers. He contacted the police department in Billerica, his hometown, which informed him that Merritt had killed himself in November 1996.
He learned that Merritt’s suicide followed the filing of an abuse lawsuit, and tracked down the court papers. As the pieces fell into place, he began to fully accept what had happened to him in his youth.
“I trusted him,” he said through gritted teeth. “But he was a monster.”
Embry said he was raped and sexually assaulted approximately 100 times over the course of three years, usually at the Harvard pool. Merritt lived near the Embry family in Billerica, and told Embry’s parents their son had great potential as a swimmer. He would drive Embry, and several other boys, to Cambridge for practice on a regular basis.
After the first alleged assault, Merritt said he nearly told his parents. But he lost his nerve at the last minute, and soon the guilt and shame became too much to overcome.
In the 1996 complaint, a 41-year-old man claimed Merritt sexually abused him from 1965 to 1970, when he was between the ages of 11 and 16. He did not realize he had been abused until 1993.
For Embry, the memories of the alleged abuse sent him into a desperate spiral. He fell into a deep depression, and attempted suicide. When he wrote Harvard in 2008, he described living “in a state of abject fear.”
Through intensive counseling, he has begun to rebuild his life, but remains troubled. “I have made progress, but am not the man I used to be,” he said.
Beyond the legal dispute, Durso said he believes Harvard had a broader moral duty to help any victims that come forward.
“Your obligation should be to find out who has been harmed and do whatever you can to help those people,” he said. “Because it happened on your watch.”