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Defamation Lawsuits: A Tool for Sex Abuse Survivors?

Adults who survived childhood sexual abuse understand firsthand the lengths that perpetrators and enablers will go to silence young victims. Many survivors feel that they have no recourse for their abuse, but this is far from true. As more and more people come forward publicly with their stories of sexual abuse, they are also taking measures to hold their assailants and the institutions that protected them accountable for their actions.

Civil lawsuits are one tool that survivors have used, since it can be difficult to pursue criminal charges for childhood sexual abuse. One woman who experienced abuse in the Catholic Church has sued the church for defamation—one of the first lawsuits of its kind.

Shedding light on cover-ups through lawsuits

A 68-year-old woman from Pennsylvania recently filed a defamation lawsuit against the Catholic Church, alleging that the church publicly defamed her to silence her allegations of abuse. After a clergy member sexually assaulted her as a teenager, the church investigated the woman’s family in an attempt to dig up dirt that would discredit her testimony. Even though a witness corroborated the abuse, the church claimed that the woman was merely seeking attention and public favor.

The survivor’s lawsuit alleges that the church intentionally publicly defamed her and caused her to suffer emotional damage. This case is unique because few lawsuits, if any, have attempted to hold abusers accountable for defaming or silencing victims.

Survivors have legal options

For adults who experienced sexual abuse in their childhoods, lawsuits are just one of many legal tools available. Like the brave woman who filed the defamation suit, survivors can choose to hold abusers accountable, seek compensation for their damages and prevent future sexual abuse. If you survived sexual abuse, you have the law on your side. You are not alone: You can help hold the abuser responsible for their actions.

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