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Can a sexually abused child be forced to sign a secrecy agreement?

When it gets right down to the core essentials of an explosive story garnering national headlines that focuses on child sexual abuse, the central question is what we pose above in today's blog headline.

Secrecy agreements are commonly executed in the United States, especially in employer-worker relationships. Also known as nondisclosure agreements (NDAs), such contracts cite penalties that will be imposed against individuals who subsequently breach their terms by publicly speaking up about some contractually covered matter .

In some instances, NDAs are executed as part of a financial settlement. Reportedly, now-disgraced film mogul Harvey Weinstein demanded that many of his sexually abused victims sign NDAs, pledging silence in return for monetary payments. Such agreements are routinely upheld by courts.

What if a contracting party in a non-disclosure pact is pledging silence concerning sexual abuse suffered as a child, though? Should her (or his) silence be contractually demanded in the wake of contract execution, even in the event that money was exchanged?

Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney says no. As a recent New York Times article notes, her legal team argues that under California law child abuse victims "cannot be forced to sign a nondisclosure agreement as a condition of a settlement."

That is precisely what Maroney did in the wake of abuse inflicted upon her (and allegedly on scores of other gymnasts) for years by a team doctor who is now serving a decades-long prison term. She states that she signed a secrecy pact demanding her silence in return for money she desperately needed for therapy and financial support.

Maroney recently went public with details about the abuse, in spite of the NDA terms that sought to bar her from doing so. The lawsuit she filed in a California court earlier this month asks for money damages and a court order that nullifies the NDA on public policy grounds.

Her arguments are compelling. How could it ever be reasonably argued that a sexual abuser and other parties complicit in that abuse should have the right to demand a child victim's silence regarding heinous criminal conduct?

We will keep readers duly informed of material developments in this case. It could have broad implications for other abuse victims who are now closely watching it.

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