Case dates back decades

Lake Oswego School District is facing a multimillion dollar elementary student sex abuse lawsuit from the 1980s — again.

The Oregon Supreme Court on March 7 announced its unanimous decision to return the case to Clackamas County Circuit Court, which had first dismissed it. The lawsuit, which could cost the school district as much as $10.5 million, is expected to go to trial within 12 months.

“We’re certainly not happy with it, but it just means that we have to go through the whole thing again,” school district Superintendent Bill Korach said.

This is the first time an older child abuse case has been allowed to go forward against a government body, said Kelly Clark, an attorney for the plaintiffs.

“We have been saying for years that it is unjust to give governmental child abusers special protection in the law, and this ruling goes a long way towards remedying that injustice,” Clark said.

Judd Walter Johnson is accused of acts including fondling boys’ genitals in front of their classmates. The school district employed Johnson, a fifth-grade teacher, from 1965 to 1984 at Bryant, Forest Hills and Lake Grove elementary schools.

Now in his 70s, Johnson is a defendant in the case, and the school district is also being held liable as his employer. The district no longer employs any of the administrators who worked at the district at the time. Korach became superintendent in 1987.

Seven men, each identified as “Jack Doe” with a number, alleged that Johnson molested them in the 1980s. Two of the men have died, but the five remaining men deserve compensation for what they have suffered, said Kristian Roggendorf, also one of the plaintiff’s attorneys.

The men, three of whom still live in Lake Oswego, are seeking $2 million each for emotional trauma and psychological trauma and $100,000 each for future therapy.

The trial court and the Oregon Court of Appeals said the case could not be tried because of a two-year statute of limitations on abuse charges against government bodies.

The state Supreme Court initially rejected the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ appeal of the earlier court decisions.

Clark and Roggendorf then got in touch with child abuse organizations. Attorneys for those groups filed a brief supporting the lawsuit that cited professional research on the long-term effects of child sex abuse and the delayed discovery of the harm it can do.

The men have struggled as many child abuse survivors do, suffering from issues such as alcohol and drug abuse, depression, trouble establishing relationships and distrust of authority to the point of being unable to hold a job, said Clark, who worked on a successful lawsuit against the Boy Scouts of America in 2010. 

The school district’s attorney, David Ernst, said it is too late to try the case. Ernst said the boys should have come forward as soon as the abuse occurred; he said their claims were not filed in a timely manner.

The boys didn’t realize what was happening to them at the time was wrong because Johnson was an adult who had gained their trust and befriended their families, grooming the boys for the abuse, Clark said. The state Supreme Court’s decision, he added, indicates an understanding of the late discovery of child abuse.

“It usually takes decades for victims to understand how the abuse has injured them, and this case shows that Oregon law now recognizes that mental health reality,” Clark said.

Korach said it seems unlikely that the men did not realize that the sex abuse had done them any harm until they reached their 30s and 40s.

The victims started coming forward when The Oregonian published a series on sexual abuse in 2008. One of the men’s mothers said she tried to report the incidents to the school district but was ignored.

In a separate incident, Johnson pleaded guilty to second-degree sexual abuse and was sentenced to two years of probation and counseling. He tendered his resignation in February 1984, and the state revoked his teaching license.

“The district terminated the guy when they knew what he had done,” Korach said.

According to court documents, Johnson denies the allegations because he does not know the plaintiffs’ identities.

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