A Former Client Discusses Hiring a Sexual Abuse Lawyer and the Process of Bringing a Sexual Abuse Lawsuit

[The below is a condensed version of a Podcast interview between John Heenan and one of his former clients. The full version is available for listening at https://join.wisdom.audio/bAxS]

J. Heenan: So, my name’s John Heenan, I’m a lawyer in Billings, Montana, and long story short, I for a number of years have represented people against banks, insurance companies, federal government, stuff like that. And, and maybe four or five years ago, I was contacted by a lawyer friend down the road in Miles City, which is about two hours from where I am in Billings. And he told me about a lot of his friends that had been molested and sexually abused by a high school staff member and asked if I’d be willing to help out and basically take on the case. And I had never handled a sexual abuse case before and ended up representing 32 men that had been abused and kind of walked alongside them and in each of their journeys.

And we were able to get a good settlement in the end. And I kind of found my calling in the legal world, there were times where it was really hard emotionally to kind of be there and help on that case, but it was one of the most rewarding cases that I’ve ever had also just beyond the winning on the legal side, just to watch my clients’ journeys and help to be a part of that in some way. Yeah. And so, so since that case, I almost exclusively represent people in sexual abuse cases. Some of my clients are children, some of them are adults. Everybody has kind of their own goals and hurdles. I work to help them navigate the process as best I can. And, you know, I guess kind of the way I equate it to I’m, I’m like a counselor with a hammer because a counselor can just work through your problems and, and I have the hammer and can help people get results and win in the legal process.

Client: Yeah. And, so our, our journeys were completely separate. John’s doing his thing and finding his calling and finding, ways to help people through some of the most difficult demons that they’ll ever face, including their own perpetrators. Meanwhile, I when I was 15, so that was about 1981, I was what I would call now looking back groomed by a an authority figure, who was a spiritual figure, who befriended me. And especially at a time when I was pretty wounded myself, I just came out of, uh, three years of hell with a stepfather who was really domineering narcissistic. And just to give you a little insight after a couple years into that, I just stopped crying.

And I never cried again for, till my kids were born when I was 41. So that was, you know, 25 years or something that I didn’t cry. And it wasn’t like I was choosing not to cry. Something just broke inside. Um, so coming outta that wounded relationship with my stepfather, my mom and him split up thankfully, but then we went to this new church and he befriended me, and, and it was a really, it was a very affirming friendship for a while until it turned ugly. And, he began to touch me inappropriately. And I was completely unprepared. I, I never ever had been talked to about if this kinda thing, here’s what you scientist should look for. I was never told, you know, you should call 911, or you should call the police, or you should tell somebody. I didn’t want anybody to know. And also I didn’t want anybody to know that I didn’t do anything about it. Cuz then I felt like I’d be judged as complicit in this.

Um, but fast forward I get married. I got kids. And as you can imagine, um, I’m kind of broken on the inside in certain ways. There were parts of me, as I found out through counseling that they just froze back when I was 15 and I learned to adapt and survive. Those parts, like not being able to cry and other things, my suspicion of male authorities, not wanting to submit to their authority, thinking that I probably know better, uh, that wreaked havoc on some jobs. And it was wreaking havoc on my marriage to the point where, um, our marriage was really kind of hanging by a thread and my choice was get a divorce and move on or try to salvage this thing and go to counseling.

Client: And so I went to counseling, thank God, that’s the choice I made. And after many sessions, I can’t tell you how long, but after a long, long process, um, I began to understand the damage that had happened back when I was 15 to my little self. Um, my, my psyche and, and I guess the words that my counselor uses that makes sense to me is arrested development. And it wasn’t a judgment on her part. She was just saying, Joe, um, when you’re a child, when you’re a minor, everything’s still in flux, everything’s still being developed your identity and your, your ability to speak up for yourself and all those type of things. Uh, and so what you did, and she said, this actually your superpower Joe are you’re super adaptable, any environment, any person, any, any thought or whatever, you’re able to adapt it because that’s what kept you alive.

It was 2020 COVID had set in I’m pacing in my backyard. I can’t go to work because of COVID. And I keep hearing on the radio these advertisements from a law firm that said, Hey, if you were abused as a child, you were molested, especially by a, a clergyman or a scout leader or someone in authority, you have an opportunity now to follow your case. And I was like, really, is that, is that even possible? Really, really? And I heard this advertisement several times and I kind of ignored it for a while, but it kept coming back and I thought, well, somebody’s trying to get my attention. And I full on believe in divine intervention, of course, cuz my life has been full of that, that, um, and so I picked up the call, picked up the phone, I called a number and I just gave him a little bit about my case.

John and I started into a long and really difficult journey together. But I could tell from that very first phone call, pacing back and forth in my backyard, like the voice in my head saying, what, what have I done? Is this a good thing? Is this going to bring my family into the public eye? Am I going to have to tell my dirty laundry to the old, what am my kids going to think? Even my extended family, my, my mom only knew a little bit of the details, but neither my dad, nor my siblings knew anything about this. So now is this all, how’s this going to go down? And I had all these reservations and in that very first call John and I talked for quite a while and his voice was full of empathy and compassion.

He talked about the Miles City case and the other guys, 30 something guys over three decades that had suffered the same faith that I did at the hands of one particular terrible person. One thing that really stood out in that phone call is that when John was asking about my life and I was bemoaning the fact that I hadn’t done anything earlier, he said, Joe, it’s very typical. I found with a lot of these guys that it wasn’t until they had their own children and their children approached the age that they were when they were victimized. That that was really what lit their fire. That for them to see their own kids as potential victims of what they had suffered now that their kids were the age that they were when they were victimized. It, that was enough, uh, to get past the inertia and the reservations and the fears and make the call.

And so suddenly, and that was super empowering for me. I don’t know if John even knows this, but I didn’t feel like a freak, right? Like, why didn’t I do this and why didn’t I do that? And I should have, and I should have. And for those of you that follow me on wisdom at all, you’ll know that I’ve said many times that I’ve really come to believe that the word should or shouldn’t is profane. Because now when people tell me what I should or shouldn’t do, or I hear myself telling others or even myself, what I should or shouldn’t do, I realize I’m making really strong judgements there. Who am I to be the judge and jury of anybody who is anybody else to be my judge and jury when I was a kid, yes. I need guidance. Someone to tell me what I should or shouldn’t do.

J. Heenan: All these great movies, great stories and across cultures, across history, you know Joseph Campbell’s the one that kind of articulated best. I think the Hero’s Journey kind of story formula. I mean, it’s in the Bible, you know, the reason the Bible’s such a popular book today is because it’s in a lot of ways a collection of hero’s journey stories. And I think your story and experiences, you know, sadly are not uncommon. Right. And, and we know now that this happened to a lot of people that are all thinking they did something wrong, that they were something different about them that caused them to be abused. These people they’re called predators for a reason, and they’re particularly adept at basically singling out and targeting children that they think they can get away with certain things that they think the person won’t have stability with their family that can come forward and essentially, tell on them. Your comments, I see all the time with my clients that people want to play this game of judging their 15 year old self based on their 51 year old self, which is just so unfair.

And, we are talking about that this prepubescent stages of our development where we form all these concept in our head about where we are in relation to other people, where we are in group dynamics and what I just have seen time and again, and it’s what makes these people so, so horrible that abuse children is it just kind of scrambles the wiring at the most important time. It takes years and years and years, and a lot of people just can never muster the courage that you mustered to come forward and do something about it. And, you know, um, so I just commend you for really being the hero in your journey. And it was, it’s neat to get to be by your side.

Client: Immediately things just start happening that there’s no way they could have predicted nor are they equipped for either. And, and so there’s so many great things you can draw from the Lord of the Rings and they are in the same story of Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter and other epic stories is that the hero doesn’t start out as a hero, right? This is part of the journey that due to whatever event or trauma or experience, they are compelled or required to leave the comfort zone.

But then along the Hero’s Journey, there’s also a character that is either Obi Wan Kenobi [in Star Wars], or it’s Dumbledore in Harry Potter. So there’s a mentor figure who is wise and has these powers. Right. But if you notice any these stories, they don’t fight the battle for the hero. Obi Wan Kenobi doesn’t do Luke’s job. He doesn’t take over Luke’s journey. Doesn’t take him out on his back and say, I’m going to fight off all your enemies. He just empowers him, gives him wisdom, says here’s what to look for. Here’s the tools to use, use the force, Luke. Right? And, and eventually he disappears, which this is the part of the story that always freaks me out. Right? Because I’m on my own hero as journey. You finally find a mentor that knows what they’re doing, what they’re talking about and encouraging along the way. A really wise mentor says, well if I did that, then it wouldn’t be your journey anymore. Right. So they understand that. What I can give this is what John gave to me. John Heenan gave to me is understanding of the system, how this is how it works. Here’s the limitations of it. Here’s the power that you have Joe now in your hands because you stepped forward and said, I will face my fears. I will face my dragons. I will fight against my enemy. But I didn’t want to do it alone. No way. I, and I wouldn’t know how, I dunno how the legal system works. I didn’t have a lot of financial resources. I didn’t know who to call. And John immediately just assumes whether it was consciously or not assumes the role of mentor of guide and says, Joe, this is your battle. And it sucks for you. And he’s very compassionate saying, I’m so sorry. This has happened. Oftentimes I could hear John choking back to tears, cuz he didn’t want me to have to go through this. But he is like, now that you have, and now that you’re ready to move forward, here’s how I can help. Here’s how I can show you. I can illuminate for you the path so that you can take your own steps. And I really like that metaphor right there. That just came outta my mouth. I can illuminate the path for you, but you still gotta take your own steps. And I think that’s very biblical. Even the Psalms say that God’s word is a light to our feet, uh, light to our path.

J. Heenan: Your comments about out that hero’s journey are so thoughtful and so eloquent. And I, the one kind of when Harry Potter beats Voldemort, or you know, Frodo destroys the ring, I mean, all there’s always an end scene that result and the hero coming back to the village with the elixir.

Something that they can share with the village, because they’ve been on this journey. And so, you know, hearing you talk about the shining a light, what, I’s just so moving to me and you’re not the only client I’ve, I’ve had the honor to walk next to, and kind of be the mentor through a very difficult journey. But now, I mean, what you’re doing right now is you’re the mentor. I mean, you’re taking time out of your life to give voice to something that’s very hard to give voice to. And you’re the mentor now to let other people that might be listening, know that they’re not alone, you’re there and other people are there to be the Sam or be the Gandalf and help them through their own hero’s journey.

Client: So we all have our scary monsters and they’re, they’re like formless and that’s what makes them more scary is you can’t really see them. They’re just lurking in the shadows and you don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know if you can handle it and you feel pretty damn puny sometimes. Like, am I to be able to fight these monsters? Here’s what I think now about the monster creeping the shadows– it’s like the wizard of Oz is that it’s a lot of sound in theory and it’s super scary. But when you get empowered, it’s like Toto comes up and he grabs the curtain and tears it down. And there’s that guy behind the controls who was doing all the big Wizard of Oz things. And you realize is that it, if that’s all you got, I’m good. Right. I’m good. That’s all you got.

Before you sign off, John, I just want to say publicly how much I love you, how grateful I am for you. I believe it was divine appointment that you became my lawyer. I mean, everybody’s got preconceived ideas about what a lawyer is like, and I had my own and you shattered all those stereotypes, and have become my friend and my brother. And I’m so grateful that we got to do this together and I look forward to whatever the future may hold for the two of us.

Learn more about John Heenan and his prosecution of sexual abuse claims.