When children suffer sexual abuse, they often do not understand until years later that what happened to them was in fact abusive. Sometimes this is because the abuser manipulated the child into believing that what was happening was completely normal. Other times, the child will make up a different story in own their mind to protect themselves from the trauma they suffered.
Civil cases for child sexual abuse can be lost if suit is filed too late. The statute of limitations can be a big problem for victims who don’t understand what happened to them for many years. But some states, like Vermont, protect child sex abuse victims by allowing them to file their lawsuits within a certain number of years after they discover or realize they were sexually abused.
In the recent case of Clarke v. Abate, M.D., the Vermont Supreme Court held that the jury, and not a judge, should decide when it was that a child sex abuse victim came to understand that she was abused.
In the case, a 16-year-old female athlete began seeing Dr. Abate, an orthopedic surgeon and University of Vermont professor, for a hip injury and pain in her groin. After several visits, Dr. Abate told the girl’s parents they did not need to come to her appointments, which began to take place weekly, sometimes after office hours. On at least three occasions, Dr. Abate molested the girl. He later said that what he did was just part of a medical examination.
The trial court dismissed the girl’s suit against Dr. Abate, holding that the girl knew Dr. Abate’s conduct was wrong when it happened, and therefore the statute of limitations had already passed. Indeed, the girl had said “I guess I always knew it was wrong in my heart.”
The Vermont Supreme Court disagreed and sent the case back for a trial. The Court explained that even though the girl’s statements could mean that she knew at the time that Dr. Abate’s conduct was abusive, this question should be decided by a jury. This was especially so, the Court explained, because of the position of trust and authority Dr. Abate had as the girl’s long-time doctor, the fact that the girl was being treated for an injury near her groin, and the lack of a response from the girl’s family when she mentioned to them her concerns about Dr. Abate’s methods.
The case can be found here.