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Sex abuse survivors seek justice in civil suits against former sheriff Jack Strain

"There are so many survivors who missed their opportunity for justice."

ST. TAMMANY PARISH, La. — When Mark Finn read an impassioned victim impact statement at former St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain's sentencing for sex crimes, he says he could hear people crying and see the pain etched on his mother's face as he described what Strain had done to him when he was a child.

His emotions ran high that day, but Finn, 54, who has spent most of his adult life in prison, says that he felt vindication and relief as he stared down his former abuser in the Covington courtroom during the February 2022 sentencing.

"I used to always think I was better off in jail, but not anymore. Because I got to face Jack on the stand," he said one recent afternoon.

Finn, who went public with accusations against Strain even before the 2021 trial, found catharsis and even empowerment in the former sheriff's prosecution.

Strain, who was convicted of eight counts of sex crimes involving underage boys, was given four life sentences plus another 30 years for abusing Finn and three other victims.

But Finn, who was released from prison this month after serving nearly four years for a drug conviction, is also seeking damages for repeated rapes and other sexual abuse by Strain from age 6 to 12. His lawsuit, filed in 2020, was dismissed last year and he has appealed.

Such litigation is legally fraught. State law sets time limits for lawsuits seeking damages. At the time Finn was abused, state law gave victims one year to sue after an offense, which would have required him to file while still a child.

Later legislation, adopted in 1993, gave victims until they are 28-years old to sue. In 2021, the state Legislature amended that law to remove the time restriction going forward and to provide a three-year window for previous victims to file suit, regardless of their age.

That window, which expires next June, is being challenged on Constitutional grounds, potentially affecting many victims of child sexual abuse who have come forward as adults, including those who were abused by Roman Catholic clergy along with other victims like Finn.

It's not clear how many people might be affected by the issue, but one other victim of Strain's, who hoped to gain a sense of control by suing for what he didn't get during the criminal trial, couldn't even find a lawyer willing to take the case, according to his mother.

Attorney Kristi Schubert of the Lamothe Law Firm has represented 100 child sexual abuse victims. She says that the average age for someone to come forward is 52.

"I've talked to people in their 70s who I was the first person that they've ever told about the abuse," said Schubert, who is not representing Finn.

Deadlines like the one Finn encountered were extremely unfair, she said.

"There are so many survivors who missed their opportunity for justice...hoping to get a second chance," she said. But many won't even consider suing until the Louisiana Supreme Court rules on the matter, she said.

That could happen soon. The Louisiana Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments Monday in the case of T.S. vs. Congregation of Holy Cross Southern Province. That case involves a victim who sued over child abuse by a religious brother who is appealing a lower court decision to dismiss his suit on grounds that the look-back law violates the Louisiana Constitution.

Strain's attorneys also raised the constitutionality issue, arguing that the 2021 state law strips away vested rights from Strain and other defendants.

Finn's lawsuit, filed in 22nd Judicial District Court in St. Tammany Parish, must also overcome other issues. Ad hoc Judge Cornelius Regan agreed with Strain's attorneys that the look-back window doesn't apply to his case but only to claims that happened after the 1993 law was adopted.

A three-judge panel of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal in Baton Rouge heard oral arguments in his appeal Tuesday.

Finn suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder from the abuse at Strain's hands, and has had drug and anger issues for much of his life. That's not unusual, according to Schubert, who says child sex abuse survivors are more likely to use alcohol and be incarcerated and unemployed.

"Everyone's always thought that I was this tough, mean person," Finn said. "The thing of it is, I've always been afraid of a male hurting me. Especially since the conviction was done, my life has changed...I don't fear him."

But even so, Thomas Mitchell, the therapist who treated Finn while he was in prison and testified as an expert at Strain's trial, said he had one of the most severe cases of post-traumatic stress disorder that he'd even seen and would need treatment for the rest of his life.

Finn's attorney Antonio LeMon argued that the judge erred by not applying the "clear and unambiguous language" of the look-back window law to Finn's case and by dismissing another argument: that Finn lacked the capacity to exercise his right to sue before he began getting treated for severe post-traumatic stress disorder in 2019.

The judge also removed a claim on Strain's property, his house in Abita Springs, that was filed by Finn, which LeMon is also fighting.

As a practical matter, LeMon said it will be difficult to collect any money from Strain, even if Finn prevails at the 1st Circuit. Strain's $180,000-per-year pension can't be touched because of another state law that was in effect at the time of the offense, leaving Finn to pursue any other assets Strain might have.

Restitution was also off the table, because Strain's offenses happened before a law change in 2000 that allowed crime victims to receive restitution.

But money is only part of the reason Finn is seeking damages, his lawyer said.

"Mark wanted his day in court. Even if we don't collect a dollar, he would have the satisfaction of having a judgment."

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