Hergott: Facing the abuser

Lawyer Paul Hergott tackles the issues of child sexual abuse in the court system.

Child sexual abuse is occurring all around us, but public awareness and discussion about the problem is horribly lacking.

We have become painfully aware of systemic child sexual abuse in residential schools.

We have come to grasp the scope of historic child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, most vividly through the Pulitzer Prize winning movie, Spotlight.

Child sexual abuse in other organizations has been exposed as well.

With the prevalence of child pornography coupled with the inherent vulnerability of children, it is small wonder how pervasive it has been.

Through that awareness, we have come to understand that no child should be in the care of adults without strict precautions to prevent abuse.

When on a cub scout outing a couple years back I saw those precautions in action.  Leaders and parent volunteers were vigilant to ensure that no child was alone with an adult.

I am so very thankful to those victims of abuse whose stories of abuse have led to protections that have made our children safer when outside the protective safety of our family units.

If you watch Spotlight, you will learn that non-disclosure clauses insisted on by the Catholic Church as a term of civil settlements kept victims silent for far too long.

Those non-disclosure clauses delayed public awareness and therefore delayed the protection of countless children.

Tragically, the most prevalent and damaging child sexual abuse has remained unexposed to public awareness and protective action.

I am referring to abuse perpetrated within what should be, but so often is not, the “protective safety of our family units” by parents and other family members.

Work has been done to try to quantify the scope of this crime by researchers at the Crimes Against Children Research Center in the United States, indicating that 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys is a victim of child sexual abuse.

I happen to have a more direct awareness, through child sexual abuse having occurred and been prosecuted within my own extended family.

Why are we not hearing the voices of the vast multitude of those abused victims?

There are undoubtedly many factors that would prevent the reporting of a father, uncle or other family member, even once the abused victim has become an adult.

I am horribly unqualified to speak for victims, but I understand that there may be feelings of shame and self-blame, along with the mess of destroying the lives of loved family members.

A factor I am more familiar with, and made the news this past week, is those darned non-disclosure clauses that so effectively silenced victims of the Catholic Church.

The few child sexual abuse victims who have the courage to bring lawsuits against their abusers are inevitably faced with settlement terms that prohibit them from ever sharing their stories.

Those settlement terms contribute to an unaware society that is complacent to the most harmful and prevalent child sexual abuse which is occurring all the time, all around us.

The news headline was about a British Columbia mother who is suing her own daughter for sharing her story of abuse.  Her daughter had brought a lawsuit against her step-dad, alleging abuse from age 9 until age 13 or 14.  The lawsuit included her mother, alleging that she failed to protect her.

A settlement included a term that if the daughter shared her story with anyone apart from a few family members and close friends, she would have to pay back every dollar of the settlement.

The daughter is defending the lawsuit, in part alleging that the non-disclosure term of the settlement should be found “void and unenforceable” on the grounds of public policy.

I am very interested to see how this lawsuit turns out.  My hope, faint as it is, is that it will proceed to a trial where a judge will carefully consider the public policy issues that have been raised.  Perhaps there will be a legal pronouncement that will prevent non-disclosure terms being used in these types of cases.

I say that my hope is faint, because more likely the case will settle, and perhaps the terms of that settlement will also include non-disclosure.

How about we not wait for a lawsuit to fix this problem.  How about our public leaders carefully consider this issue and potentially enact legislation that would limit the use of non-disclosure clauses in child sexual abuse settlements.

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