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Can Victims of Child Sexual Abuse Sue?

By Ephrat Livni, Esq. | Last updated on

It is common for victims of sexual abuse, particularly kids, to experience denial, repressing memories of crimes that were committed against them. Perhaps this is one reason that in criminal law in many states there is no statute of limitations for prosecution of child sexual abuse cases, and that time limits are extended for these kinds of claims in civil suits.

Certainly, the best-known sexual abuse claims often arose years after they occurred ... with the help of reporters. The Archdiocese of Boston recently acknowledged as much after the movie "Spotlight" -- about The Boston Globe's investigation of a widespread scandal in the Catholic Church -- won an Oscar. But generally speaking there are time limits for filing a claim. So let's take a look at ways cases may advance despite the passage of time.


In many states, the statutes of limitation for civil sexual abuse suits toll until adulthood or later. State laws vary and statutes of limitation within them do too. Some states don't start counting the time for making a claim until a later age -- beyond 18 -- and some may also provide a longer window within which to sue once the clock starts running.

Tolling on statutes of limitations is not always straightforward, and given the wide variation in state laws, you should speak to a lawyer about the specifics of your case. The National Conference of State Legislators points out that many states recognize the delay between abuse and the discovery of injury, and provide additional extensions for child sexual abuse cases.

Don't assume too much time has passed since the event itself to file suit. There can be bases not dictated by the dates of abuse itself. Let's take a look.


Some child sexual abuse claims are based on institutional negligence or negligent hiring. In those cases, the clock would start to run on the claim based on discovery of the institution's awareness of an issue.

It can get confusing so let's use an example. Say a child was abused in the seventies and said nothing. No legal action is taken. But 40 years later, the now-adult victim learns -- through the efforts of reporters or otherwise -- that there is evidence an institution knew of the abuser's issues. Now a claim might be based on the institution's negligent failure to warn and the clock starts running from the date of discovery of the information, rather than the date of abuse.

Creative Lawyering

A good lawyer will consider many angles on a case and attempt to find a basis for a claim in light of the specifics of your story. It's difficult to determine what claim will work for your situation in the abstract. Consult with a lawyer, and don't give up.

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