A former Billerica man is accusing a deceased Harvard University swimming coach of sexually abusing him more than 100 times and that the institution misled him when he brought the abuse to their attention.
Boston attorney Carmen Durso, who has represented multiple victims of sexual abuse, filed the lawsuit on behalf of Stephen Embry, who is now 55. The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages.
Embry claimed in the eight-page lawsuit that swimming coach Benn Merritt, who lived in his Billerica neighborhood, recruited to coach him and then abused him between the time he was 12 to 14 years old.
“For a period of over three years … Merritt sexually assaulted, battered and raped him at the Harvard pool, the locker room and the showers,” according to the lawsuit.
The abuse included fondling of Embry’s genitals, masturbation, oral rape and attempted rape.
Embry said he suppressed the memories until a breakdown and suicide attempt years ago sent them to the forefront of his mind. A therapist suggested he contact the institution and he did. According to letters sent to Embry by Harvard officials, they told him they would look into the claims, but didn’t get back to him until two years later when he reached out again.
In that response, a university attorney told Embry that “the time has long since passed for bringing a legal claim against the university.”
The statute of limitations in Massachusetts for a civil claim is three years after the act or three years from when the victim realized a psychological or emotional injury was caused by the act.
Embry said he came forward in part to support a state proposal to extend the statute of limitations and show support for other potential victims.
“I hope … all these victims may be able to find the courage inside of them to come forward,” Embry said.
Merritt, who left Harvard to coach at Newton North High School, committed suicide in 1996.
Durso said he believes Harvard is responsible for their actions because the swimming program for children younger than college-aged students was likely either sanctioned by the university or that university officials allowed it to happen because of Merritt’s status as a coach.
Today’s news of the lawsuit comes out on the same day that Penn State and officials there were slammed by a report that said they failed to protect children from the abuse of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.
“Sexual abuse is not a sports issue or a religious issue with the Catholic church … it’s a society-wide issue,” Durso said. “But I see similarities in the ways all of the major institutions handle these things, whether you’re talking about the Catholic church, Penn State or Harvard.”
Harvard University released a statement regarding the lawsuit.
“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. Nevertheless, there was nothing to prevent Mr. Embry from having taken legal action any time before or after he or his original legal counsel initiated conversations with representatives of the general counsel's office in 2008,” the statement said.