Sexual assault: Why are court cases brought so long afterwards?

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On February 7, 2012, Gordon Stuckless a former assistant equipment manager at Maple Leaf Gardens, was charged with six more counts of indecent assault against young boys in a historical sexual assault case. You may remember Stuckless because he pleaded guilty to 24 counts of sexual and indecent assault in 1997. Subsequently, one of his victims, Martin Kruze, jumped to his death off the Bloor Viaduct. Stuckless was sentenced to jail and was paroled in February 2001. The allegations currently being pressed against Stuckless, now 63, include that he assaulted two more boys, one 11-year-old and one 13-year-old, at a school, a community centre and various other locations across Toronto in the late 1970s.

It is likely that the individuals who say they too were abused by Gordon Stuckless and are now coming forward to police will also consider claiming compensation through our civil courts, not only against Mr Stuckless whose ability to pay is probably limited, but also against the organizations that placed him in positions of authority and responsibility over them as children. Certainly, it is their right to seek compensation through a civil court process for the harms they have suffered, and this is something that the criminal courts, which are geared to punishment not compensation, are simply not equipped to offer.

In my experience as a civil litigator practicing in the abuse field for almost two decades now, it is extremely common for individuals who were abused as kids or teens to delay for years and sometimes decades before coming forward with their allegations. These individuals generally feel great shame and guilt about what happened to them and one of their coping mechanisms – both while the actual abuse is occurring and subsequently – is to avoid thinking about or dealing with the abuse. This phenomenon is well recognized by those in the mental health field who treat individuals who have suffered a trauma like sexual assault. I have seen a whole range of triggers cause individuals to come forward with their allegations of abuse many years after the fact. These include seeing their own children reach the age they were at when they were abused and realizing how innocent and vulnerable they too must have been at this age. It can also be something in the public domain, such as media reports about victims coming forward or a child abuser being convicted and being sent to jail. This can sometimes serve to empower victims to break their silence. I have also seen many instances where, despite widespread publicity such as that which Gordon Stuckless attracted in the 1990s when the sexual assault allegations against him were previously before the courts, victims of the same perpetrator hold back for many years more before finally coming forward. This is usually because they are just not in a state of mind or a place where they feel strong enough, or they have the supports necessary, to open up what can be a very painful and disruptive Pandora’s box both to them and to their families or communities.

Historical sexual abuse cases are commonly brought before the courts many years, even decades, after the abuse happened, when they can finally gather up the strength to go to the police or to seek legal advice from a civil lawyer like me about whether they can pursue compensation for what happened to them. Sometimes they do both – participate in a criminal case against their alleged perpetrator and initiate a claim for compensation against their perpetrators and/or the organizations they believe put them in harms’ way. In recognition of how long it can take those who have suffered sexual abuse to come forward, the courts and, more recently legislatures through legislative reforms addressing limitation periods, have relaxed the legal principles that might otherwise have stopped abuse victims from successfully putting forward their allegations and claims before the courts.