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Proving Institutional Sexual Abuse: The Notice Requirement

Proving Institutional Sexual Abuse: The Notice Requirement

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Does an Institution Need to Know About Sexual Abuse by an Employee to be Liable?

One of the aspects of proving a sexual abuse case against an institution, school, church, or any other entity, is notice. Notice is essentially proving whether or not anyone at that institution was aware, or reasonably should have been aware, that improper acts were occurring between one of its employees and any individual associated with that institution.

Many victims of sexual abuse believe that they were the only person to have suffered sexual abuse at the hands of their perpetrator. This is very often not the case. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network), less than 1/3rd of victims of sexual abuse ever report their abuse to anyone.  Oftentimes, sexual predators move from victim to victim over a period of many years.  Many victims are unaware that there are numerous other people who have gone through the same nightmares they have.

Oftentimes, Institutions Know About Abuse and Cover it Up

Sexual abuse victims also often feel that no one would ever believe them or believe that a trusted individual, such as a priest, pastor or teacher, would ever be involved in such horrendous acts.  While this may have been the case years ago, the tides have turned and victims are being validated all across the country. With reports of sexual abuse pouring in from numerous sources, most recently from the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, people are more aware of the vast cover-ups and protection that has been provided to pedophiles and sexual abusers for many years.

While no one may have seen the sexual abuse occur and a victim may not have told anyone about it at the time it was occurring, this does not mean that the entity was unaware of a sexual abuser’s activities and/or proclivities.  This “notice” to the institution can be proved in many different ways.

Actual Notice of Sexual Abuse Versus Constructive Notice

In Illinois, there are two types of notice that can prove an entity’s knowledge of wrong-doing.  The first type is “actual” notice, meaning someone witnessed the occurrence or was told about it by someone at the time.  As we’ve seen in recent reports, many Catholic dioceses were given actual notice from parishioners, yet failed to remove pedophile priests from ministry.  Or worse, they shielded the pedophile by moving him to another parish.  While an abuse victim, or their family, may not have notified the entity directly, this does not mean that someone else didn’t report the abuse.  We’ve handled numerous cases where a victim of clergy abuse believed he didn’t have a case because no one was aware that the abuse was occurring and the victim didn’t tell anyone.  In many of those cases, it later came to light that someone did report the perpetrator years early, but the entity simply hid that knowledge or outright moved the pedophile to a different location to shield him from any danger.

The second type of notice is “constructive” notice. This means that people affiliated with the entity were aware, or reasonably should have been aware, based on the facts and circumstances surrounding an individual.  The Catholic Church has been aware that it had a major problem involving sexual abuse of children since the 1950s.  Yet, despite this knowledge, continued to let priests have unrestricted access to minor children in settings that were ripe for abuse to occur.  While church employees may not have witnessed the abuse occurring, they did witness children staying overnight in a priest’s private residence, children receiving large gifts from priests, children withdrawing socially and mentally after spending time alone with priests, etc.  These things combined would put a reasonable person on notice that these activities were improper and that children were being put in danger.

Sexual abuse victims suffer in silence for years following abuse, leaving them with feelings of guilt, shame, embarrassment, and fear.  If you are a victim of institutional or clergy abuse, it is often likely that someone was on notice of what was happening to you or was aware that your abuser was a danger, to begin with, and failed to protect you.  These feelings often keep victims from coming forward when the real guilt lies with those individuals who had noticed these dangers and failed to protect children against them.


If you, or someone in your family, have been a victim of clergy abuse; please contact The Law Offices of Frederick W. Nessler and Associates, Ltd. for a strictly confidential and personal consultation.

Many resources exist to obtain counseling, help, and other assistance for this terrible crime. If you have inquired about bringing suit against your abuser in the past and have been denied due to statute of limitation issues, we urge you to please contact our law offices.

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