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Institutional Sexual Assault: Vulnerable Victims

Vulnerable Victims

Any person can be the victim of sexual violence; however, children, the elderly, and individuals with intellectual disabilities are particularly susceptible to institutional sexual assault.


Major events in recent history remind us that children often fall victim to sexual violence in an institutional setting. These heinous acts regularly happen in spaces where children ought to feel extremely safe such as their churches and schools. Sexual violence against children is frequently committed by individuals entrusted with their safety and well-being.

60% of perpetrators of sexual abuse are known to the child but are not family members. These are individuals whom the victims and their families have grown to know and trust. Through the process of “grooming”, these predators take on a caring and compassionate role in the child’s life, investing time and attention. This position of trust and authority is ultimately exploited by the predator in order to gain time alone with his or her victim, and to reduce the believability of any allegation against them.

The road to holding the perpetrators of sexual violence against children accountable, particularly in an institutional setting, is long and gradual. First and foremost, most children do not tell anyone about the sexual abuse immediately after the act was committed. Like the elderly and individuals with disabilities, children may have a difficult time articulating what has happened to them to trusted family members and law enforcement. Children often do not understand what has happened to them and struggle to explain the situation. Accordingly, younger children are less likely to disclose than older children.

Difficultly explaining the situation is just one of many factors that lead children to delay disclosure for months, years, or even lifetimes. Concerns over community and familial reactions force many children to stay silent. Many studies have concluded that a relationship with the perpetrator or concern about the consequences of others also lessens the likelihood of disclosure.

It is common for disclosures to be partial, delayed, recanted, and/or inconsistent. A mere 6.8% of children disclose directly to law enforcement. As a result, children’s accounts of sexual assault or abuse do not frequently end in conviction. Both law enforcement officials and juries tend to assume that inconsistencies in and delays of the disclosure are indications that the child is lying. When the alleged perpetrator is shielded by the reputation of an institution, the likelihood of a criminal conviction is even lower.

In the state of Pennsylvania, individuals who experienced sexual assault or abuse during childhood have until age 30 to file civil charges and age 50 to file criminal charges. For adults, the statute of limitations is two years. It is possible for child victims to bring their abusers to justice even after a decades-long delayed disclosure.

The Elderly

Sexual predators prey on the vulnerable. Senior citizens living under the temporary or permanent care of nursing facilities are among the most vulnerable and the least likely to report.

It is estimated that a mere 30% of elderly victims report sexual assault to law enforcement officials. This extremely low reporting rate is attributed to a variety of factors including medical complications associated with advanced age such as memory loss, communication difficulties, vision loss, and mobility issues. These complications impede on elderly victims’ ability to notify the police and identify their attacker. Reporting rates may also be negatively influenced by distance from and/or limited communication with family members.

Women are six times more likely to be victims of elder sexual abuse. It can be particularly shameful for these women to report because of generational societal differences. Many senior female victims do not want to describe the act or acts to law enforcement officials, who are generally younger and male. Older women may not have been taught about consent, and may fully blame themselves for an attack.

83% of elder sexual abuse occurs in institutional care centers such as nursing homes. In about 80% of all known elder sexual abuse cases, the perpetrator was the victim’s caregiver. Many elderly victims may choose not to speak out against their attackers because they are simply too reliant on the person and/or institution for their medical treatment and care.

A CNN investigative report found that “more than 1,000 nursing homes have been cited for mishandling suspected cases of sex abuse”. The mishandling of suspected cases of elder sex abuse is systemic- beginning with the institution and extending to the criminal justice system. Many of the institutions mentioned in the report neglected to notify proper reporting agencies of patients’ allegations.

Even when investigative agencies are notified, elder sexual assault cases have an extremely low conviction rate. According to the 2017 CNN report, “Police viewed the claims as unlikely at the outset, dismissing potential victims because of failing memories or jumbled allegations.”

The report goes on to say, “Because of the high bar set for substantiating abuse, state regulators failed to flag patterns of repeated allegations against a single caregiver.” The systemic mishandling of alleged cases of sex abuse allows perpetrators to continuously get away with this behavior. Without conviction, those who are alleged to have committed elderly sexual assault and abuse can find employment in other institutions and accumulate more victims.

Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities

Sexual abuse and assault disproportionately affects the intellectually disabled community. The statistics heartbreakingly illustrate this disparity: children with intellectual disabilities are four times as likely to experience sexual abuse or assault than children without, men with intellectual disabilities are twice as likely to experience sexual abuse or assault than men without, and nearly half of all individuals with intellectual disabilities will experience 10 or more sexually abusive incidents in their lives.

There are many theories regarding why those with intellectual disabilities are much more likely to be sexually abused or assaulted. Chief among them is the claim that these individuals are not readily educated about sexuality. While young men and women without intellectual disabilities have opportunities to learn about consent and assertiveness in their social groups and formal education, we have historically neglected to provide the same information to young men and women with intellectual disabilities.

In 44% of cases, the perpetrator’s relationship with the victim was specifically related to the individual’s disability; meaning that institutional sexual assault accounts for a significant portion of all sexual assault crimes against men and women with intellectual disabilities.

For many living with intellectual disabilities, most aspects of their daily lives are controlled by a person of authority. Former Deputy Secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services and parent to a son with an intellectual disability, Nancy Thaler, tells NPR, “They are generally taught from childhood up to be compliant, to obey, to go along with people.” When a person exploits their role in an institution to prey upon men and women with intellectual disabilities, the victims often do not resist or report. Agents of institutions are able to pervert this obedience in order to condition their victims into believing that these heinous acts are normal and acceptable.

Even when crimes against individuals with intellectual disabilities are reported, the perpetrator is usually not held accountable. This type of disability makes it extremely difficult for some victims to describe the event in detail or sequential order. If the case does make it to criminal court, convictions are allusive. Some victims with intellectual disabilities do not testify or convey emotion in a conventional way, resulting in skeptical juries and judges. NPR cites a Georgia case where the conviction was overturned in appeal because the judge concluded that “the woman did not ‘behave like a victim’”. The conditioned loyalty to authority associated with intellectual disabilities renders many victims especially susceptible to falling for coaching and leading questions.

Without convictions, victims with intellectual disabilities are never given the justice that they deserve leaving their perpetrators are free to commit further crimes.

If you or a loved one have been the victim of an institutional sexual assault or rape, contact Attorney Andrew Rehmeyer for a free consultation today. As compassionate and experienced attorneys, the team at Rehmeyer & Allatt will work diligently to reduce the burden on the families and victims of institutional sexual assault and get you the compensation that you deserve.