Survivors of childhood sexual abuse can seek justice through the legal system in civil or criminal court (or in both). In a civil lawsuit over childhood sexual abuse, the survivor files the action directly against the abuser and other potentially liable parties, seeking monetary compensation for harm resulting from the abuse. In criminal court, the survivor's primary role is as a witness.
Despite what we see on TV, the victim of a crime doesn't press criminal charges—that's the job of the prosecutor (the lawyer for the government). In the context of childhood sexual abuse, the survivor (or a parent or guardian) might report the abuse to the police, providing statements and information about the crime. At this point, the police and prosecution take control of the case. If the prosecutor decides to file criminal charges, the survivor and other family members will be witnesses for the prosecution.
While a survivor can file a police report at any time, filing a police report doesn't mean that the police will arrest the suspect, or that the prosecutor will ultimately file criminal charges. However, the sooner the abuse is brought to light, the better its chance of moving forward in the criminal justice system.
Most states place time limits on prosecuting criminal cases. Called statutes of limitations, these time limits are strict deadlines that can stop a criminal case in its tracks. If the prosecutor files charges after the time limit has passed, the defendant can move to have the charges and case dismissed.
Realizing that delays in reporting sexual assault are common, many states have extended the amount of time the prosecutor has to file charges in such cases—but not all have. And certain extensions might apply only to crimes occurring after legislators put the extension into law. Speak with an attorney if you have questions about the statute of limitations in your state. You can also check out this 50-state guide to state criminal statutes of limitations for sex crimes put together by RAINN. Note that time limits for filing criminal charges are distinct from time limits for filing a civil lawsuit; more on the civil side below.
Childhood sex abuse cases can be challenging to prosecute. Often, the survivor is the only witness and, for understandable reasons, it can take time for a survivor to come forward. Regardless of timing, most child sex abuse cases don't have any physical evidence to present to a jury.
Prosecutors have a legal and ethical duty to seek justice, not convictions. Before the prosecutor can file criminal charges, they must evaluate the overall strength of the case and decide if the evidence will support a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt sets a high bar for the prosecution. Basically, the prosecution must convince a jury or judge with near certainty (some say 99%) that the defendant committed the crime.
The survivor's cooperation and anticipated testimony will play an important role in a prosecutor's decision. But it's not the prosecutor's only consideration. Among other factors, the prosecutor must consider:
In many of these cases, prosecutors face an uphill battle.
Even with the survivor's full cooperation, the prosecution might decide the testimony and evidence won't be enough to secure a unanimous guilty verdict from 12 people. While this decision can be frustrating to survivors, it's rare for a court to second guess a prosecutor's decision not to file charges. (And shopping around for another prosecutor is not generally an option.)
In a civil lawsuit, the survivor sits in the driver's seat. But that's not the case in a criminal case. Once the survivor or another person reports a crime, most decisions going forward will be made by the prosecutor. These responsibilities serve as checks to protect citizens from abuse of police powers and vengeful charges.
While a prosecutor's decision won't always align with a survivor's wishes, the survivor can respectfully request to confer with the prosecutor. In some states, the victim has a right to confer with the prosecution and be informed of decisions regarding charges, dismissal of charges, and plea agreements. The right to confer does not mean the right to control, but it may provide an avenue to understanding why and how decisions are made.
Even if the criminal case doesn't move forward, a survivor can file a civil lawsuit against the abuser for financial compensation for harm caused by the abuse. In a civil lawsuit, the survivor (now plaintiff) needs to prove by a "preponderance of the evidence" (a "more likely than not" standard) that the abuse occurred and caused the harm. This standard will be easier to prove to a judge or jury than that required in a criminal prosecution.
As with criminal cases, strict time limits exist for civil cases, and many states have extended civil statutes of limitations to allow survivors of child sex abuse more time to file a civil lawsuit.
A survivor's decision to come forward takes courage and strength. Having a lawyer or advocate by your side can be helpful in navigating the legal system. A lawyer can advise you on the time limits for criminal and civil cases, assist you in keeping identifying information confidential, and if needed, file a restraining order to protect you from further harm. Additional resources can be found in our companion article Survivor Resources: Taking Action After Sexual Abuse.