Owing to greater awareness among the public and more effective dissemination of information through the media, more women than ever before are coming out to report sexual abuse and molestation in the hope of seeking justice for the traumatic experiences they have undergone. Victims of sexual abuse can now expect speedier justice consequent to path breaking changes in sexual abuse laws in California, and a wider interpretation of the statute of limitations that empower attorneys to fight strongly and bring perpetrators to book.
Incidences of sexual abuse have gained prominence in California just as it has engaged attention elsewhere in the country, but a more disturbing aspect of sexual abuse is that it is no longer an urban centric crime. It is not confined to university campuses, the military establishments, among the clergy, teaching staff, coaches and celebrities; it has made rapid inroads into our neighboring parishes, school sports programs, day care facilities and outdoor camping destinations.
Surveys of sexual abuse victims reveal consistently recurring traits that are common to many victims:
• Personality disorders and attitudinal shifts.
• Inability to trust elders and peers.
• Feelings of devastation and helplessness fuelled by emotional disturbances.
• Distancing from kith and kin, diminishing circle of friends.
• Problems in managing anger.
• Increasingly criminal behavior, and
• Sexual perversion or proclivity towards extreme sexual encounters.
Children are the worst effected and can suffer nightmares, become silent and withdrawn, exhibit changes in eating habits, show frequent mood swings, recurring fits of anger or violence, tendency to harm themselves deliberately, show compulsive eating disorders, become silent and secretive and regress into bedwetting behavior. In extreme cases they may find themselves contemplating suicide.
The victim of sexual abuse has recourse to seeking damages from the perpetrator, and the scope of damages would include:
• Monetary compensation covering the victim’s medical expenses, even expenses projected into the future.
• Compensation for losing wages or employment.
• Factoring of future losses, including opportunity losses.
While seeking compensation the physical pain, mental stress and emotional suffering of the victim is taken into account, and even if money cannot compensate the loss of self-esteem and devastation that the victim endures, compensation has the benefit of providing much needed medical and psychiatric care, and therapy and counselling opportunities, besides helping the victim reestablish a firm foothold in her life.
In the majority of sexual abuse incidents, the assailant is identified and dealt with and matters usually end there, but recent changes in law are now focusing equal attention on persons that were aware of deviant sexual behavior but chose to ignore the same. The law is also increasingly stern on organizations that have tolerated sexually deviant behavior amongst their staff, or those that have persisted with employees that are known trouble makers. The new liability laws hold everybody accountable – those that have aided, abetted or have been complicit in the crime. Organizations, Mental health establishments, elderly care institutions, religious establishments, child care centers and schools and fraternal associations are all covered under the reformed laws.
• Being negligent in recruiting staff and senior employees.
• Failing to follow standard norms in conducting background checks.
• Being lackadaisical in supervising the staff, and ignoring sexist behavior.
• Failing to intervene and assist victims that are prone to sexual abuse by virtue of their subordinate rank.
• Failing to properly investigate or probe sexual abuse allegations by forming ill equipped adhoc committees without proper gender representation.
• Concealing or destroying evidence of sexual abuse and not having a mechanism in place to redress grievances.
The sexual abuse of children could involve fondling, genital stimulation, rape, sharing pornographic clips or capturing inappropriate images of a child in different stages of nudity. The perpetrator could be a family member, friend or social contact and the memories of the incident could be indelibly etched in the mind of the child for many years, undermining the child’s personality development.
In the majority of sexual abuse cases, trauma, suffering and humiliation is the takeaway for the victim while the assailant often escapes prosecution. Fortunately this major lacuna is addressed by the statute of limitation in California which lends a broader interpretation by allowing attorneys to pursue civil litigation for claims and damages. The victim is allowed time and opportunity up to the age of 26 years to file a claim for sexual abuse through the services of a competent attorney. It is quite possible that the victim may realize much later in adult life that she was sexually abused, and such evidence may surface while undergoing therapy for emotional disorders. Even in such cases, the statute of limitations in California allows that the victim can file a civil claim for damages within three years of such discovery.
Significantly, Californian law now enables third parties to be prosecuted if they were aware of the incident or knew of deviant sexual behavior but did not act on the evidence or failed to prevent the crime. Prosecution can now be launched within one year of discovery of such lapses.
The “Yes-Means-Yes” campus sexual assault bill enacted in 2014 is a shot in the arm for the much abused concept of “victim’s consent”. The new law makes it mandatory for schools (state funded) to agree that the victim of sexual abuse cannot be understood to have given consent if she was drunk, or she happened to be under the influence of drugs or was unconscious or fast asleep. The law now clearly states that absence of resistance cannot be implied as granting consent for sexual intimacy.
In 2013, President Obama signed a new law targeting sexual violence in the U.S. military. Under the new law assault is punishable through dishonorable discharge, jury verdicts cannot be reversed unilaterally by commanders, and retaliation cannot be pursued against victims through their promotions and assignments, and these laws apply to both military outposts and training academies.
A weak point is that the law has not dispensed with a commander’s powers to hear and judge assault crimes and punish offenders, a provision that has seen many offenders escape punishment. A welcome change is doing away with the “good soldier” certification which was often exploited by military legal defense to work arguments to their advantage in sexual assault cases. Military legal defense cannot leverage a soldier’s rank, seniority and distinguished service to argue that he cannot have committed a lapse. Moreover, it is now the prerogative of the victim to approach either the military or civilian court and there is now a definitive system to privately pursue wrongful dismissal or dishonorable discharge.
It is an undeniable fact that more than half the cases of sexual abuse go unreported and unpunished because the victim harbors the fear that her job prospects and livelihood could be compromised if she were to pursue legal action. There is also the underlying fear of excommunication, social harassment and the humiliation that follows disclosure and public hearings.
The only hope is that more victims take courage to pursue legal action against perpetrators and that increasing incidents of punishments meted out by civil and military courts will act as a kind of break on the hitherto unfettered ambitions of diehard sex offenders that should think ten times before laying hands on another victim.