A large-scale lawsuit against the now-closed Mount Bachelor Academy continues to move forward despite the death of the lead attorney for the plaintiffs.
Kelly Clark filed three lawsuits in 2011 on behalf of dozens of former students who attended the academy, alleging systematic physical and psychological abuse. During his 30 years as an Oregon lawyer, Clark represented hundreds of victims of sexual abuse in litigation against entities such as the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and various school districts.
Clark represented former students who in the 1990s attended the school for troubled teens. Mount Bachelor Academy, located 26 miles east of Prineville, closed in 2009 after a state investigation found evidence of emotional abuse and sexual role-playing in the school’s curriculum.
The lawsuit alleges some of the counselors had only high school educations and were not trained in psychology, psychiatry or child development. Former students have come forward alleging counselors subjected them to abusive punishment such as exposure to extreme cold, sound torture, forced marches and physical attacks. Students also claim they were forced to participate in sexual role-playing, called names such as “whore” and “slut” and were forced to share past experiences of sexual abuse in large group sessions during their time at the school.
Clark died in December after a brief battle with what doctors believed was a cancer-related illness. The case is now being handled by Maria Ruckwardt and Steve Crew of Portland-based law firm O’Donnell Clark & Crew LLP, the firm at which Clark was a partner.
“The past year was incredibly challenging for Kelly, and other attorneys stepped up to drive the case before he passed away,” Ruckwardt said. “But it really was his case, and we feel his loss so deeply.”
Ruckwardt says her team is conducting interviews and gathering information to support the plaintiffs’ claims. She expects to have this stage completed by the beginning of the summer.
“Just last month we were in New Jersey and Connecticut taking depositions, and the discovery effort is ongoing,” she said. “The reason this case has taken so long is that there are so many people involved.”
Three separate cases are pending and will be tried in Crook County Circuit Court if no settlement agreement can be reached. Ruckwardt said those involved in the second and third cases have agreed to postpone proceedings until the first case is concluded.
The first case targets the school as well as Aspen Education Group, a defunct company that owned the academy, and CRC Health Oregon, which served as a controlling entity of the school. The lawsuit alleges abuse against 17 former students and asks for $26 million in damages.
The next hearing for the first case is scheduled for May. Ruckwardt said they should be done with the discovery efforts by then.
“At that point we’ll be ready to schedule a settlement conference or set a date for trial,” Ruckwardt said. “It could be that a settlement conference will be required, especially in a small county like Crook where a trial of this size would deplete their resources.”
The second case involves 15 former students, echoes the claims of the first case and is suing the defendants for $22.85 million. The third case alleges similar abuses, involves 13 former Mount Bachelor Academy students and asks for $19.5 million in damages.
“The parties in the second and third cases have agreed to hold off litigation until we resolve the first case,” Ruckwardt said. “What happens in the first case won’t necessarily dictate what happens in the other cases, but many things we discover during the course of the first case will come into play in those cases.”