Institutional Sexual Abuse: What It Is, and How It Protects Predators From Justice

by Frank E. Lamothe, III

Sexual abuse is one of the most serious and systemic problems plaguing our society. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most under-reported crimes in the books. According to surveys conducted by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVR), barely 40% of rapes are ever reported to the police. This number dwindles down to a sickening 12% when children are involved.

Sadly, some of the biggest enablers of these crimes are the institutions we count on to protect our safety. For example, experts from the NSVR study discovered that when the abuse happened on a college campus, the number of unreported rapes skyrocketed from 40% to 90%.

These numbers aren’t just staggering; they’re also odd—especially when considering efforts such as Title IX—a federal act designed to protect students from this very type of harm.

What Is Institutional Sexual Abuse?

In this context, ‘institution’ refers to any organization founded for a specific purpose. This includes schools and education systems such as college campuses. It also refers to organized religions, government offices, hospitals, other medical facilities, sports clubs, businesses, and any other group bound and distinguished by a distinct common interest.

Institutional sexual abuse, then, is defined as any form of unwanted sexual behavior or exploitation that occurs within the context of that organized structure. Behavior that—according to Louisiana law—includes:

• Unwanted exposure to sexually explicit material, language, or contact.

• Being forced to participate in sexual activities because of threats or fear of retaliation.

• Any sexual act where the parties were unable to consent.

It’s clear these actions are abhorrent and deserve just punishment. But why is pursuing justice for institutional sexual abuse, specifically, so problematic?

Institutional Sexual Abuse Naturally Shields Perpetrators and Blames Victims

Some institutions—such as college campuses, government offices, hospitals, and other workplace settings—have clear, defined systems for reporting sexual abuse. However, these organizations often have some of the highest rates of unreported abuse because organized institutions create a natural environment for shielding predators and blaming victims.

This environment can’t be blamed on any one issue but, instead, a combination of several mechanisms working together. These include:

• Power imbalances between those in authority and their subordinates.

• A culture of silence that discourages survivors from reporting incidents.

• A lack of clear guidelines or an inadequate system for reporting.

• Claims not being taken seriously by those in charge.

• A lack of evidence or manipulation of evidence.

• The legal challenges and expense of holding an institution responsible for allowing abuse to happen.

These circumstances force survivors to choose between outing their perpetrator in a system where the odds already seem rigged against them and the simplicity of staying silent.

Is it any wonder that the odds of reporting are so low?

Louisiana Legislators Are Moving the Needle in the Right Direction

The current system leaves far too many gaps for perpetrators to slip through. However—perhaps in part due to the rampant unveiling of clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic community—Louisiana legislatures have recently begun making concerted efforts to fill some of those gaps.

One of the most significant of these efforts is the Lookback Window Act, which was signed into law in June 2021. Patterned after a similar bill in New York, the Lookback Window Act eliminates the statute of limitations for any sexual abuse crime—no matter how far in the distant past it took place. This deviates from prior rules, which stated that child sexual abuse survivors could only bring claims until their 28th birthday—a limitation that might explain why only 12% of child sexual abuse cases are ever reported.

Considering the myriad physiological, emotional, and legal hurdles that delay reporting sexual abuse in any setting, many Lookback Window supporters wonder if these extensions should be made permanent.

Are You a Survivor of Institutional Sexual Abuse?

Pursuing justice for sexual abuse is never easy, but it can feel even more insurmountable in the face of institutional power. If you are a survivor of institutional sexual abuse, we want to hear from you. Contact Lamothe Law Firm today for a free consultation, and let our team of highly experienced and compassionate attorneys defend your rights and interests while seeking justice for these crimes.

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