What Is the Difference Between a Civil Sexual Abuse Lawsuit and a Criminal Lawsuit?

The civil and criminal justice systems are different, with different goals and outcomes for survivors of child sexual abuse. In the United States, there are two separate bodies of law whose purpose is to deter or punish wrongdoing or to compensate the victims of wrongdoing. Criminal lawsuits are initiated by the government to deter or punish criminal acts, or behavior deemed by the government to be an offense against the public, society, or the state.

A criminal lawsuit can only be initiated by the federal or state government, even when the victim of a crime is an individual. Civil lawsuits, on the other hand, are initiated by an individual or private party who has been harmed by another individual or private party. They are a mechanism for someone who has been harmed to seek justice and accountability from those who have caused them harm or even those responsible for allowing the harm to occur. While civil and criminal lawsuits are largely independent of each other, there may be some overlap between them. If you have been harmed, it is important to seek experienced counsel right away to discuss your legal options.

Can I Pursue a Civil Case if My Perpetrator is Dead? 

You typically are able to file a civil lawsuit, even if the perpetrator is deceased. However, to have confidence in what your legal options are, it’s best to speak with an attorney. Civil laws regarding child sexual abuse do more than hold the perpetrator accountable. Civil laws also hold guilty institutions who covered-up abuse and put additional children at risk accountable.

When you come forward and use the civil justice system, you can help stop the cycle of abuse in the churches, schools, or other institutions that may still be putting innocent children at risk today.

Plus, when you speak out, even if you do so anonymously, you can help other survivors of the same perpetrator who believe they are the only survivor know that they are not alone. Your coming forward may also empower a child currently being abused to speak up.

So, yes, you can file a lawsuit against the organization that covered-up the crimes of sexual predators even if the predator is dead.

Can I Pursue a Criminal Case if My Perpetrator is Dead?

Unfortunately, since we cannot put a dead person in jail, our criminal justice system has no remedy when the perpetrator is dead.

Which Kind of Sexual Abuse Lawsuit is Better? Criminal or Civil?

Both types of cases are important for different reasons.

Only a criminal case can put a perpetrator behind bars.

However, a criminal case cannot expose wide-scale cover-up within an institution — that is the role of the civil justice system. Both kinds of cases are important and we encourage survivors to pursue all legal avenues that are open to them for justice and accountability.

Our attorneys and survivor advocates have decades of experience supporting survivors navigate their legal options.

Do Both Criminal Cases and Civil Cases go to Trial?

It depends on the specific circumstances of the case. Trial is always a possibility until a case reaches settlement, however the vast majority of civil cases are settled before a trial occurs.

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