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What is Institutional Sexual Abuse and How Do These Claims Work in Nova Scotia?


Most incidents of sexual abuse go unreported. In fact, in Nova Scotia, only one in ten cases of sexual assault are reported to the police. That means that 88% of the province’s sexual abuse survivors suffer in silence, and many perpetrators have faced no legal consequences for their criminal actions.

Sexual abuse refers to any kind of unwanted sexual activity that occurs without consent. In the overwhelming majority of cases, victims of sexual abuse personally know their assaulter. Oftentimes, perpetrators of sexual abuse use violence, physical force, threats, or coercion to take advantage of their victims. Victims of sexual abuse often report pervasive feelings of anxiety or depression following their assaults, and many experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The majority of cases of sexual abuse are perpetrated against women, children, transgender and gender non-conforming individuals. If you have been the victim of sexual abuse, the province’s Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) programoffers medical response services twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

At an institutional level, sexual abuse involves an imbalance of power. When an individual uses their position of authority within an organization, such as a school or religious institution, to carry out sexual abuse against someone in their care, the leadership of these organizations may be considered partially to blame. If an organization was aware that an imbalance of power within their institution led to sexual abuse and neglected to report it to police, or turned a blind to a history of assault, its leadership may be considered liable for damages suffered by victims as a result of systemic sexual abuse.

If you were the victim of institutional sexual abuse, a Nova Scotia sexual assault lawyer may be able to assist you in your pursuit of accountability and financial compensation.

Call 1-877-572-1324 to speak with our Eastern Canada legal team Book Free Consultation

How Institutions Might Facilitate Abuse 

Victims of institutional sexual abuse may face lifelong repercussions. For those who were abused during childhood, the resulting emotional trauma may derail the course of their entire lives, following them into adulthood and pervasively impacting their quality of life.

Cases of institutional sexual abuse reveal that even authority figures in positions of trust can engage in unlawful conduct, and that the organizations they represent can choose to turn a blind eye to their criminal activities. These organizations may fail to adequately prevent or address occurrences of sexual abuse committed within their institutions. By doing so, the organization’s leadership essentially facilitates the favourable conditions for this criminal behaviour to continue.

Institutional sexual abuse often impacts vulnerable or disempowered individuals within the context of a larger organization. Victims often include  children, individuals with mental illnesses or developmental disabilities, inmates, and indigenous women and youth. In Nova Scotia, institutional sexual abuse may be perpetuated by:

  • Churches, and other religious organizations
  • Educational institutions
  • Psychiatric hospitals
  • Correctional facilities
  • Sports leagues
  • Recreational organizations (ie. summer camps, extra-curricular programs)
  • And more

Even government organizations may be responsible for fostering a culture of systemic sexual abuse. Even decades after their closure, survivors of the province’s government-sanctioned residential schools continue to experience trauma resulting from institutional sexual abuse. Residential school survivors across the country may receive emotional support by calling the Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419.

Filing Class Action Lawsuits Against Institutions

If an institution knew or should have known that sexual abuse was being perpetuated against people in its care by people they employ, but did nothing to stop it or address it, it may be proven that, on an organizational level, the institution was complicit in perpetuating a cycle of institutional sexual abuse.

When more than two individuals allege sexual abuse against members of the institution, class action proceedings may be filed against them in The Supreme Court of Nova Scotia.

While no amount of money will truly be able to compensate the survivors of systemic sexual abuse, these civil actions are designed for victims to hold institutions accountable for the serious, long-term repercussions of abuse they suffered. By participating in a class action lawsuit against an institution for their vicarious liability, victims may be able to recover costs for damages they suffered as a result. These damages are often related to the emotional distress they experienced following their assault. For example, damages could include a victim’s costs of ongoing psychological treatment, or a loss of earning potential as a result of being unable to complete their education.

In a class action lawsuit, sexual abuse survivors may also be able to receive financial compensation for the following:

  • Physical injuries
  • Mental anguish
  • Emotional and psychological trauma
  • Spiritual harm
  • Punitive damages
  • And possibly more

Many victims of sexual abuse fear that their traumatic experiences will be exposed to the public during civil proceedings. Class action lawsuits protect the privacy of its individual class members, allowing their claims to be resolved in a respectful, sensitive manner. For victims of institutional sexual abuse, the knowledge that they are among a group of survivors can be empowering, as they hold the organization accountable for the role it played in causing their trauma.

With the assistance of a sexual assault lawyer, a victim of institutional abuse may be able to pursue civil litigation, including class action lawsuits, even if they are also pursuing criminal charges.

Pursuing Criminal Charges for Sexual Abuse

Criminal prosecution will not result in a victim of sexual abuse receiving financial compensation from their assailant. However, if an individual accused of perpetrating sexual abuse is proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, criminal prosecution may result in them serving time in jail.

The burden of proof in criminal proceedings is much higher than in civil actions, which are determined by weighing a balance of probabilities. Perhaps owing to this high burden of proof, only one in fifteen cases of sexual abuse reported to police in Canada results in jail time.

When pursuing criminal charges against an individual assailant, victims of sexual abuse must first report the assault to the police. The authorities will then conduct an investigation, and determine if there is enough evidence to prove that the crime took place. If sufficient evidence exists, the Crown will bring charges forward in court.

Criminal charges may also be pursued in certain instances of institutional sexual abuse. If it can be proven that an organization’s leadership engaged in calculated acts to hide instances of abuse within their ranks, they may be found accountable in criminal proceedings, in addition to civil litigation.

Contact Preszler Injury Lawyers Today

In Nova Scotia, there is no statute of limitations on filing civil or criminal charges for sexual abuse. If you have been the victim of institutional sexual abuse, our sexual assault lawyers may be able to respectfully review your case, and provide sensitive, discrete, and useful legal advice. To review the legal options that may be available to you, contact us today.

For a free, initial consultation, call Preszler Injury Lawyers at 902-405-8282.

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