sex abuse survivors

When a person has been the victim of sexual abuse, it may trigger both the civil and criminal process.  While these processes both involve the courts and have many similarities, there are also fundamental differences that are important to understand so that we can best help an abuse survivor.

Police Tape:  do not cross


The goal of a criminal case is guilty plea or verdict and jail time for the perpetrator; in some cases, restitution may be awarded to the victim but is usually limited to actual medical expenses or out of pocket expenses (for example, lost wages for having to take time off to testify).  

Of course, in the case of most sexual abuse victims, these remedies are  inadequate because the harm is generally emotional and unseen rather than physical injuries that can be neatly quantified in medical bills, and because most are not of working age yet.  

In a civil case, a victim can seek monetary damages to compensate him or her for past, present, and future pain and suffering and medical, psychological, and psychiatric needs.  In many states, punitive damages may also be available.



 Criminal cases are often known as “trial by ambush.”  In many jurisdictions, the prosecution is not entitled to any information from the perpetrator before trial. Even in jurisdictions where the parties are required to exchange information before trial in a criminal case, the type and amount of information that must be disclosed is narrowly limited.  

In contrast, civil discovery is very broad, and the plaintiff bringing the case can often find out information that is unavailable even to prosecutors.  One main benefit that a civil case provides is that a perpetrator can be forced to answer questions or give a deposition under oath before trial.  


who should be sued?

The obvious defendant is the abuser;  however, often times an organization is at fault for allowing an abuser to have sanctuary and protection.  

Two questions to be answered are "where did the abuse occur?"  and "what organization has oversight of the abuser?"  

For example, if the abuse occurred in someone’s house, it might be appropriate to name the homeowner;  if it occurred in a business or while the perpetrator was on the job, the business or employer liability should be considered; and if others knew about the abuse, but did nothing to stop it, they should be named as defendants.

Over the years, we have seen large institutions that have enabled abuse to occur, such as churches, schools, athletic associations,  and sports governing bodies.

For some victims, United States Federal Law may provide a civil remedy, automatically providing for  damages if the victim qualifies.   18 U.S.C. § 2255 has been interpreted to allow victims of child pornography to seek restitution from both past and future perpetrators and those who use computer technology to widely disseminate child pornography.

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