Old Abuse Claims Face Unsure Path in Tennessee Courts

December 28, 2011

Experts in Tennessee law say it’s not clear whether allegations of sexual abuse against the former president of the Amateur Athletic Union have come too late for the accusers to seek relief in either the civil or criminal courts.

Steve Farese, the attorney for former AAU president Bobby Dodd, has told The Associated Press that Dodd is innocent and that there is nothing to the claims by two men who told ESPN that Dodd abused them during the 1980s while they played on his youth basketball teams.

The results of a Memphis Police investigation will determine whether the statute of limitations has expired on possible criminal charges.

“The statute of limitation has changed probably six times in the last 30 years or so, so everything is very fact specific and time specific,” said Brian Holmgren, an assistant district attorney in Nashville who prosecutes child abuse cases.

He said the statute of limitations may differ depending on the charge. Also, he said, it would depend on whether the alleged abuse took place on trips outside the state.

Two men came forward on ESPN earlier this month with the abuse claims. Dodd was coaching basketball teams based at a Memphis YMCA at the time.

The AAU, which oversees about 500,000 athletes in sports programs across the country, has since severed its ties with the 63-year-old Dodd, who has colon cancer. A spokeswoman for the organization said that the AAU has given Memphis police the name of a possible third victim.

One of Dodd’s accusers is 43-year-old Ralph West, who told ESPN that Dodd tried to fondle him or masturbated in front of him at Dodd’s home in Memphis and at AAU events and tournaments in Indiana, Florida, Louisiana and Tennessee.

The Associated Press typically does not identify alleged victims of sexual abuse, but West has spoken publicly on the matter. The other man wasn’t identified by name by the network.

Both said they were prompted to come forward because of the sex abuse case at Penn State University.

West told The Commercial Appeal newspaper that he is not interested in gaining publicity or filing a lawsuit, but wanted to keep Dodd away from children.

State law currently says that adults alleging child sexual abuse have one year to file a lawsuit after turning 18.

“They have to file suit before their 19th birthday,” said Nashville attorney John Hollins Jr., who represented two men who settled a lawsuit with the Catholic Church after they were sexually abused by a former Nashville priest. “Other states, like California, have a lengthy statute of limitations in civil cases.”

A pending decision before the Tennessee Supreme Court may determine whether alleged victims can sue decades after they claim to have been abused.

The case before the Tennessee Supreme Court involves a lawsuit against the Catholic Diocese of Memphis brought by a man who says he was abused by a priest in the 1970s.

Norman Redwing sued the Diocese of Memphis in 2008 claiming he’d been abused by a priest that the church knew or should have known was “a dangerous sexual predator with a depraved sexual interest in young boys.”

“The Redwing case should establish the law for the victims of sexual crimes from years ago on the statute of limitations issue,” said Gary Smith, a Memphis attorney who represents Redwing.

A spokeswoman for the Diocese of Memphis said the church is awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision.

“We’re waiting on results and, as much as everybody else, hoping for an outcome of both justice and mercy for the entire situation, Suzanne Aviles said.

Smith cautioned that if Redwing wins his case it still might be very difficult for victims in older abuse cases to circumvent the statute of limitations on filing a lawsuit.

“Every single case is going to be dependent on its own facts,” Smith said. “So even if the Redwing ruling is in our favor, it does not mean we have not avoided the defense of statute of limitations.”

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