How to Prove Sexual Abuse Charges

Understand how sexual abuse is proven in civil and criminal cases

By Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on January 27, 2023

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Sexual abuse is both a criminal and civil matter. Criminal cases focus on stopping and punishing the perpetrator of the sexual abuse. Civil cases focus on compensating the victim of sexual abuse. 

Victims of sexual abuse can pursue a lawsuit in civil court regardless of whether criminal charges are prosecuted.  

Sexual abuse has “a much broader definition in civil law than what you would see in criminal law,” says Connecticut personal injury lawyer Cindy L. Robinson. “There aren’t simple definitions for [sexual abuse] in the civil world. Sometimes people look to the penal codes for definitions, but in tort and civil law, we take a considerably larger view of the definitions of these terms.” 

“In the civil context,” says Robinson, “when we’re thinking about the sexual abuse of a child, really, it’s anything that is done to them… that is used for the sexual stimulation of the perpetrator. It can involve both touching and non-touching behaviors.”  

This article will explain the standard of proof in criminal and civil cases and the types of evidence used to prove sexual abuse. If you or a loved one has suffered sexual abuse, consider seeking legal aid from a trusted and experienced attorney

What Is the Standard of Proof? 

The “standard of proof” is the level of certainty required to prove a case in a criminal or civil court.  

Another similar term is “burden of proof.” This is who has the job of proving the case. In a civil lawsuit, the burden of proof is on the person who brought the lawsuit, known as the “plaintiff.” In a criminal case, the burden of proof is on the state prosecuting the individual.  

The standard of proof in criminal trials is more stringent than in civil cases. 

Criminal Cases: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt 

Criminal laws vary by state, and the exact legal definition of sexual abuse and related sexual crimes depends on state law. Sexual abuse can involve any con-consensual sexual activity, including sexual assault, sexual exploitation, and rape.  

Child sex abuse involves any sexual contact or exploitation of a child for sexual gratification. 

In criminal cases: 

  • The burden of proof rests on the state prosecutor to prove the defendant’s guilt 
  • The standard of proof is “beyond a reasonable doubt” 

Individuals accused of sexual abuse should seek a criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. Charges of sexual assault or sexual abuse carry misdemeanor, and more often, felony penalties.  

Individuals convicted of a sex crime confront jail time and registration on state and national sex offender registries. Sex offender status is often for life and can impact everything from employment to where an individual can live. 

Civil Cases: Preponderance of the Evidence  

In civil cases: 

  • The burden of proof is on the plaintiff, or person who filed the lawsuit, to prove their case. 
  • The standard of proof in civil cases is called the “preponderance of the evidence” standard. This is lower than the standard of proof in criminal cases and only requires the plaintiff to prove their claims with 51% certainty. 

Compiling enough evidence to establish that an individual was sexually abused and who committed the sexual abuse is the most important part of a civil case.  

Speaking with an experienced lawyer is essential in compiling evidence and presenting a strong case. 

Types of Evidence 

Compiling evidence “is a very challenging part of bringing [sexual abuse] cases,” says Robinson. 

This is because “frequently, we’re bringing these cases many years and sometimes decades after the actual offenses took place,” she says. 

“So, you have to do due diligence in investigating claims. Often, the way we start with our investigations is by investigating our own client. We will hear a terrible story of a child being sexually abused by someone in a position of trust. We will investigate our client as it relates to their educational and mental health history to see whether the story they told us is corroborated in any of those records,” she says.   

“Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t,” says Robinson.  “Children who are sexually abused often do not report it or receive counseling for it, even as adults. And even if they do [receive counseling], they often don’t speak about the sexual abuse because it’s a difficult thing for them to put in perspective.” 

While conducting the preliminary investigation, they “often look for patterns [in the perpetrator’s behavior], because frequently and very tragically, the people who perpetrate child sexual abuse have more than one victim… [we look at] how they get access to the child,” she says. “We look for corroborating evidence as well and will speak with family members and friends. And sometimes there is evidence in the medical records where there were reports of sexual abuse.” 

Other types of evidence include: 

  • Physical evidence 
  • DNA evidence 
  • Forensic evidence  

If law enforcement was notified and conducted a police investigation, the resulting police reports could also be essential evidence. 

Statute of Limitations 

A statute of limitations is a law that sets a time limit on how long someone has to bring a lawsuit.  

“There are different statutes of limitations in each state,” says Robinson, and so timeframes “look different [depending on where you live].” For example, “Before 2019, people in Connecticut had 30 years after the age of majority [age 18] to bring a claim,” or 48 years old. 

“There’s actually an ongoing statute of limitation reform movement for child sex abuse cases, where people are actively seeking to have the statute of limitations for sex abuse cases either eliminated entirely in civil actions, or to extend it, or to have some type of a window period that would allow anyone to come forward during a particular timeframe,” she says.  

Robinson cautions that “statutes of limitations can definitely limit an individual’s opportunity to bring a claim. And there are longer statutes of limitations [for sexual abuse] because the research tells us [it takes a long time] for a person to feel comfortable to come forward with allegations. The typical age for someone to come forward would be age 52.” 

Questions for a Sexual Abuse Attorney 

If you are considering a lawsuit, consider speaking with an experienced lawyer about your case. Many attorneys provide free consultations, allowing you to get legal advice and decide if the attorney or law firm meets your needs. 

To get the most out of a consultation, ask informed questions such as: 

  • What are your attorney’s fees? 
  • What is the statute of limitations for filing a lawsuit? 
  • How likely is a settlement before going to trial? 
  • How long will the trial take? 
  • What sort of evidence is needed to prove my case? 

Once you have met with a lawyer and gotten your questions answered, you can begin an attorney-client relationship. 

Look for a sexual abuse attorney in the Super Lawyers directory.

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