Can I Sue for Damages After Childhood Sexual Abuse?

Survivors of childhood sexual abuse may have a right to sue the perpetrator and those who failed to prevent the abuse.

When a survivor of childhood sexual abuse is ready to consider the spectrum of available resources and options, the prospect of seeking "justice" (however the survivor might personally define that term) may become an important objective. In this article, we'll describe what filing a civil lawsuit over childhood sexual abuse might accomplish, the types of losses that might be compensable through this kind of action, and more.

What Can Filing a Lawsuit Do After Childhood Sexual Abuse?

Why might a survivor decide to file a lawsuit against an abuser and/or others who might bear legal responsibility for the impact of childhood sexual abuse, especially when the harmful act might have occurred decades ago? The answer here tends to be a deeply personal one.

First, let's explain what "filing a lawsuit" means, from a childhood sexual abuse survivor's perspective. A survivor gets a lawsuit started by filing the right documents with the court (usually with the help of an attorney) and asking for a legal remedy against the abuse perpetrator and others (including organizations, employers and other entities) that might bear legal responsibility for the abuse.

It's important to differentiate a civil lawsuit from the criminal law process. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse is usually the only person with the authority to decide whether to file an injury lawsuit over the abuse and its impact. And while the survivor has a clear right to report abuse to law enforcement authorities or to an organization or individual who can (and may have a legal obligation to) notify proper law enforcement authorities of the abuse, it's the government (a city/county, or a district attorney, for example) that initiates the criminal process by filing charges against the perpetrator of the abuse.

A few more key differences between a civil lawsuit and the criminal process:

  • The plaintiff in a civil lawsuit only needs to establish the defendant's liability "by a preponderance of the evidence," meaning that the defendant's fault for the plaintiff's abuse-related harm is more likely than not. On the criminal side, an abuse perpetrator's guilt must be established "beyond a reasonable doubt" by the government. This latter standard is a much higher bar to clear from a proof perspective.
  • While in a civil lawsuit the defendant's liability is expressed through a damages award (as described above), a defendant's guilt in a criminal case is punishable by incarceration in jail or prison, imposition of fines, mandatory counseling, probation, and other sanctions.

So, why file a lawsuit? For some abuse survivors, taking the matter to court represents an opportunity to officially take control back from the abuser and others who failed to stop the abuse from happening, or who failed to meet their obligations to protect the survivor.

Besides the opportunity to hold potential defendants legally and financially responsible for their abhorrent action (and inaction, as the case may be), many survivors choose to file a lawsuit in order to add their own voice to a chorus of others who have come forward to shine a light on the despicable conduct of trusted members of a community, and the wholesale abdication of moral and legal obligations of institutions.

A lawsuit can also help expose criminal conduct and cover-ups so that future incidents of abuse might be prevented, and so that other vulnerable members of church communities may be protected.

What Does a Childhood Sexual Abuse Lawsuit Compensate?

If the lawsuit is successful—and the defendant (the person or entity being sued) is found liable for the plaintiff's harm—that legal remedy generally comes in the way of money damages that the defendant is ordered to pay to the plaintiff. These damages typically include compensation for:

  • economic losses, including the cost of medical treatment, counseling, and other care and services made necessary by the abuse; plus any income/livelihood-related financial impact, like lost ability to earn a living), and
  • non-economic harm (including "pain and suffering," mental anguish, emotional distress, and other psychological effects of the abuse; also loss of enjoyment of life, loss of intimacy, and other effects).

Can I File a Sexual Abuse Lawsuit Anonymously?

The court rules in every state (and at the federal level) require that every person filing a lawsuit be identified by their legal name, but there are special situations in which it's possible for a plaintiff to use a pseudonym (i.e. "Jane Doe" or "John Doe") or initials. And when it comes to clergy sex abuse lawsuits in particular, this tactic has been used successfully in a number of instances—most recently in civil courts in Arizona, California, Kansas, and New York.

In most jurisdictions, a plaintiff can file a motion asking the judge's permission to proceed with a lawsuit anonymously. The question is whether permission will be given (whether the motion will be granted by the court, in other words). Rules vary from state to state, but typically, in order to proceed with a lawsuit anonymously, one or more of the following factors must exist:

  • revelation of the plaintiff's identity might expose the plaintiff to danger or the threat of retaliatory physical harm
  • identification of the plaintiff is likely to result in serious reputational/financial harm
  • the plaintiff is likely to suffer significant psychological harm through revelation of their true identity, and/or
  • the subject matter of the lawsuit is of a particularly intimate or private nature.

In something of a recent trend in civil lawsuits over sexual abuse, judges have been granting permission for plaintiffs to file their case anonymously, with the caveat that if a settlement or some other resolution can't be reached, the plaintiff's identity will be revealed once the case goes to trial.

If you're a survivor of clergy abuse, and you want to understand your options for filing a lawsuit anonymously, your best first step might be reaching out to an attorney. An experienced lawyer will be familiar with the procedural rules in your state's court system, and will have the skill to apply the facts of your situation to those standards, and give you the best chance of pursuing justice on your terms.

Settlement and Compensation Funds

It's important to note here that even when a civil lawsuit is filed over harm arising from childhood sexual abuse, out of court settlement in one form or another—whether by individual agreement or through participation in some sort of compensation fund—is by far the likeliest outcome in these kinds of claims.

Oftentimes, any settlement agreement will require confidentiality by all parties as to terms and other details (which may or may not be a desired constraint for every survivor.) And keep in mind that by accepting a settlement, survivors are forgoing the right to take any future legal action over the abuse and its impact.

The widespread prevalence of reports of clergy and other church employees abusing children (not to mention the filing of thousands of lawsuits) have prompted Catholic dioceses and archdioceses to create compensation funds for survivors of this kind of abuse. This list of diocese/archdiocese-specific Victim Assistance Coordinators (from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) has more details.

And Boy Scouts of America's 2020 bankruptcy filing came as the organization faced hundreds of sexual abuse lawsuits from former scouts. BSA's restructuring established a compensation program for sexual abuse survivors, though the claim filing window closed in November 2020. Claims against a BSA Local Council or another entity might still be an option.

Is a Childhood Sexual Abuse Settlement Taxable?

This is a common question, and the answer depends on the specifics of what the settlement is intended to cover (or replace). But the following general guidelines apply to compensation given to a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, whether or not the survivor receives a settlement after filing a lawsuit or through a compensation fund, or in the rare event that a civil lawsuit goes to trial and the survivor receives a court-ordered judgment.

  • Compensation for physical injuries/harm is not typically taxable, and neither is any compensation for any lost income, emotional distress, psychological harm, or other "pain and suffering"-types of impacts resulting from the physical harm.
  • If the lawsuit is based on non-physical harm or injury (i.e. a standalone claim for emotional distress with no allegation of abuse), any settlement or award will probably be taxable as income.
  • If punitive damages are awarded to the survivor (because of the defendant's particularly egregious or outrageous conduct), that compensation is almost always taxable.

One thing to be wary of is that if you've claimed a deduction in past years for medical expenses that can be attributable to the abuse, or for the processing of trauma resulting from the abuse (i.e. counseling), you might run into taxation issues when your settlement is meant to cover those same expenses.

As with most areas of the law, the details of your particular situation will determine the most complete answer, and especially here at the intersection of the legal and tax realms, your best bet is to consult an expert. Learn more about Tax Implications of Settlements and Judgments (from IRS.gov).

Get more information about resources and options available to survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

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