Civil Lawsuits In Sexual Abuse Cases: A Powerful Tool For Survivors And Societal Change

On Behalf of | January 31, 2024 | Criminal/Sexual Violence

Sexual abuse leaves an indelible mark on the lives of survivors. Its repercussions can span a lifetime.

Sexual abuse often occurs in institutional settings. Civil lawsuits are a powerful avenue for holding those institutions accountable. Through a civil claim, a survivor can not only seek compensation for the pain and suffering they have endured, they can also make a significant difference by holding institutions accountable. Their courage in taking legal action paves the way toward a future in which institutional sexual abuse is no longer tolerated and robust preventative measures are the standard, ensuring safer environments for all.

The scourge of sex abuse in institutional settings

Sex abuse is especially rampant in institutional settings such as religious organizations, schools, universities, correctional facilities, residential care facilities and the military. The exploitative pattern plays out time and time again: Those in positions of power take advantage of vulnerable individuals, often resulting in lifelong trauma. A single perpetrator may sexually abuse dozens of people.

Often  institutions turn a blind eye to the risks and allegations of sexual abuse. They sweep allegations of abuse under the rug in order to preserve their reputation and avoid accountability.

Left unchecked, perpetrators may continue to climb the institutional ladder. Perpetrators may hold prominent positions that provide them with greater power and opportunities to exploit the vulnerable, perpetuating a cycle of abuse that can last for decades.

The limits of criminal proceedings in sexual abuse cases

While criminal proceedings serve a vital role in our justice system, they often fail to provide adequate justice for survivors of sexual abuse. For example, prosecutors may decline to bring criminal charges or, if the crime occurred long ago, the perpetrator may no longer be alive or prosecutable. Even when offenders are brought to trial, the focus is on penalizing the criminal conduct rather than addressing the survivor’s ongoing trauma.

What’s more, in criminal proceedings, the spotlight is focused solely on the perpetrator. Criminal proceedings do not address the myriad ways in which institutions fail to prevent and address sexual abuse. The underlying issues within the institution – such as inadequate policies, lack of proper oversight or a culture that discourages reporting – are left untouched, and patterns of sexual abuse continue to gain footholds in those settings.

Civil lawsuits fill this gap by targeting the institutional practices that allow abuse to occur. They create a path for organizational change while also providing meaningful justice for the individual survivor or group of survivors. This dual outcome underscores the importance of civil litigation in the broader fight against institutional sexual abuse.

Overcoming challenges in civil sexual abuse claims

Survivors who step forward to confront institutions in civil court display immense bravery, often facing formidable opposition. These institutions typically possess substantial financial resources and the incentive to protect their reputations, leading to robust defenses. Survivors may encounter a history of cover-ups or find that their previous reports of abuse were dismissed or ignored.

Another critical obstacle in many cases is the statute of limitations, which sets a deadline for filing a civil lawsuit. These deadlines rarely take into account the reality of survivors’ experiences. Survivors of sexual abuse often face significant psychological hurdles that can delay their decision to seek justice for years or even decades. The trauma from their abuse can lead to suppressed memories and complex feelings of fear, shame and guilt. They may struggle with understandable fears of retribution and public exposure, along with the fear of not being taken seriously. They may have previously reported the abuse within the organization, only to have their allegations be invalidated and swept under the rug. All these factors make it extremely difficult for survivors to come forward.

Fortunately, some states have recently enacted laws providing a temporary suspension or completely eliminating these deadlines, allowing claims that would have otherwise been time-barred.

Empowering survivors on their journey toward healing and accountability

In the face of these challenges, an experienced and compassionate legal team becomes invaluable. At Sanford Heisler Sharp, our attorneys stand with survivors and are not afraid to go up against powerful institutions. We are a public interest law firm committed to advocating for survivors’ rights and societal change.

The attorneys in our Sexual Violence, Title IX and Victims’ Rights Practice Group handle each case with sensitivity, shielding survivors from unnecessary public scrutiny and offering unwavering support every step of the way. With our firm, survivors gain more than just legal representation; they gain steadfast allies who are determined to secure justice and hold institutions accountable.